Mathematician William Dembski stands accused of bringing shame upon a major university. Not only that, say his colleagues, he has managed to disgrace the entire scientific enterprise.
Scientists from distant universities wrote letters to the editors of his university newspaper, and biologists spoke up through the surrounding city papers, telling the public why this man must be stopped. When Dembski organized an academic conference, one incensed professor from another state sent long e-mails to the scheduled speakers, seeking to discredit Dembski and convincing one famed philosopher to cancel.
The faculty senate of his own Baylor University voted 26 to 2 to recommend that his research center be dismantled. Eight members of Baylor’s science departments wrote Congress about the dangers of Dembski’s project, and several briefings on the issues were made before a bipartisan group of congressional members and staff.
So you’re wondering: What kind of new and evil science is William Dembski practicing? Is he cloning half-humans without souls to create cheap labor? Several Baylor students interviewed for this article couldnt pinpoint the exact deed, but knew it was immoral because they heard that it had something to do with an evil use of the human genome project.
What does Bill Dembski think of all this? A mild-mannered mathematician more at home with probability theory than politics, he shakes his head in disbelief. Ive found that when people get to know me one-on-one, they think what Im doing is legitimate, or at least worth pursuing. But when they start listening to the siren call of the Internet, things get out of control.
What Dembski has actually done hardly seems nefarious. As a scientist with twin Ph.D.s in mathematics and philosophy, Dembski has set about developing mathematical methods for detecting intelligent design, should it be discernible, in nature. Thats all. Whats more, he has submitted his work to the scientific scrutiny of his peers. So why are all these professors so hysterical?
Since the 1980s, critics have charged that the intelligent design concept is really just a disguised form of creationism. According to Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education: Theyre really saying God does it, but theyre not as honest as the Biblical creationists. The intelligence is really spelled in three letters: G-O-D.
Not at all, says Dembski. Intelligent design points not to a creator, but to a designer — a crucial distinction. If you examine a piece of furniture, he explains, you can identify that it is designed, but you cant identify who or what is responsible for the wood in the first place. Intelligent design just gets you to an intelligent cause that works with pre-existing materials, but not the source of those materials.
Neuroscientist Lewis Barker, who left Baylor in protest over the administrations religious policies, buys none of this: I see it as a form of stealth creationism, a very old argument wrapped in new clothes. Later, however, he adds: The whole notion of using mathematics, thats something new.
Also novel is the respect many intelligent design proponents have earned in the academic community. Theyre real academics, not cranks, admits Skeptic magazine publisher Michael Shermer, whose editorial board is overwhelmingly composed of intelligent design critics such as Stephen Jay Gould and Eugenie Scott herself. They have real degrees and tenure, adds Shermer. Not only does William Dembski have doctorates in mathematics and philosophy, he has done postdoctoral work in mathematics at MIT, physics at the University of Chicago, and computer science at Princeton University. Even Lewis Barker says: He seems to be a very bright guy.
Eugenie Scott argues that intelligent design proponents dont have a scholarly position because they never submit their work for peer review. But each time she brings up the kind of scholarly evaluation thats lacking — the reviewed publications or academic conferences — she stops short when she comes to the work of William Dembski.
Regarding conferences, Scott remembers Dembskis The Nature of Nature conference (April 12-15 at Baylor) and grudgingly admits: They actually did invite some scientists there. In fact, the slate of speakers included two Nobel Prize-winning scientists and several members from the National Academy of Sciences. The list was weighted toward prominent biologists, physicists, and philosophers who were critical of intelligent design.
And when Scott ticks off a list of non-peer-reviewed design literature, she hesitates when she recalls that Dembskis book, The Design Inference, was written as part of a Cambridge University philosophy of science series. Published as Dembskis doctoral dissertation in philosophy, it became Cambridges best-selling philosophical monograph in recent years. After surviving a review of 70 scholars, and then the standard dissertation defense at the University of Illinois, The Design Inference finally underwent corrections and refereed scrutiny for two years at Cambridge University Press.
The great irony is that just as Dembski is proposing to test his theory with the help of molecular biologists, the very scientists who are challenging intelligent design to pass scientific tests are using every means possible to ensure those tests never take place.
Birth of a Think Tank
The brief story of Dembskis Michael Polanyi Center starts with its home: Baylor University, the worlds largest Baptist institution, located in Waco, Texas. For years, Baylor had a reputation among conservatives for going the way of many once-Christian colleges, neglecting its religious heritage and embracing the politically correct tenets of secular humanism instead.
All that began to change when Robert Sloan became president of Baylor University in 1995. Sloan, a New Testament scholar with a doctorate in theology from the University of Basel, proposed to return the school to its mission of integrating academic excellence and Christian commitment. To foster this goal, he oversaw the establishment of the universitys Institute for Faith and Learning, which explores opportunities for profitable engagement between faith and academic pursuits like art, history, business — even science.
Sloan resisted the urging of fundamentalists to throw the evolutionists out of the biology department, vowing never to bar anyone at Baylor from teaching evolution. He rejects the notion of a creation science (6-day creation a few thousand years ago). But he also believes that the academic world has become far too compartmentalized.
Baylor ought to be the kind of place where a student can ask a question and not just get the runaround, says Sloan. He shouldnt have to go to the theology department and be told, Oh, thats a scientific question. Dont ask me that. And then the student goes to the science department and they tell him, Thats a religious question. Dont ask me that.
So far this doesnt sound too different from many other universities nationwide that have recently set up centers to revisit the relationship between science and religion. But matters took a fateful turn in the fall of 1998 when President Sloan read an article by William Dembski and was wowed by his work and credentials. Others in the administration were also impressed. Michael Beaty, director of the Institute for Faith and Learning, says that Dembskis work fit right in with the institute. Bill was fruitfully dialoging with religion and science.
When Beaty sounded him out about his interest in joining the institute, he learned that Dembski was seeking to build a research center to test the theory of intelligent design. The administration received his ideas with enthusiasm. His research would pursue not only intelligent design, but a broad range of topics having to do with the foundations of the natural and social sciences. Thus was born the Michael Polanyi Center, which Dembski named for an eminent physical chemist who taught that biology is not reducible to chemistry and physics.
This was an opportunity to reaffirm that Baylor is a university where controversial issues can be discussed, says Donald Schmeltekopf, Baylors provost. We decided to go ahead and give it a chance, believing the university would be a richer and more compelling place, knowing that there would be those who would have objections. His pleasant expression disappears, and he adds: We didnt anticipate the amount of objection.
After Dembski brought on board Bruce Gordon (Ph.D. in the history and philosophy of physics) as associate director of the Polanyi Center, the duo made a good first impression on the faculty they met. Gordon led a colloquium reading group, using two books about interactions between science and faith. Discussion with participating faculty was cordial.
The controversy began after our Website debuted in mid-January, explains Gordon. Thats what drew more faculty attention to the center. While the Polanyi site itself was unexceptionable, other groups with evolutionist-bashing agendas began linking up their Websites to the center. Many on the biology faculty flashed back to old culture battles, when such groups had publicly questioned the professors integrity.
Gordon is understanding, but explains that the realities of the Web are such that the Polanyi Center has no control over who connects to their site.
We dont endorse a connection to those sites at all. They didnt ask our permission. But we cant spend our time policing the Internet.
Reaction built quickly. One professor who had previously been friendly at the reading group wrote Gordon an insulting letter. An e-mail frenzy began between faculty in all departments, calling special attention to the creationist Websites that claimed the Polanyi Center as one of their own.
News spread to other universities, and soon newspapers in Waco and Houston were filled with reactions from a handful of vocal Baylor professors who were appalled that such a monstrosity as the Polanyi Center should be found on their campus.
By this time, plans were well under way for a large Polanyi conference called The Nature of Nature. Most Baylor biologists decided to boycott the event. Even so, the April conference drew 350 scholars from around the world whose views varied wildly on the conferences central question: Is the universe self-contained or does it require something beyond itself to explain its existence and internal function?
By all accounts, the conference itself was an outstanding success, drawing attention to Baylor as a place that could attract world-class scholars for dialogue on the big questions. In spite of one out-of-state professors campaign to convince all speakers to cancel, the conference brought together such luminaries as Nobelist/physicist Steven Weinberg, Nobelist/biochemist Christian de Duve, big bang cosmologist Alan Guth, paleontologist Simon Conway Morris, and philosopher Alvin Plantinga.
But the conference only focused the Baylor facultys anger more intensely on the Michael Polanyi Center. A few days after it ended, the faculty senate met and voted to recommend that the administration dissolve the center immediately. The faculty claimed that President Sloan had no right to set up such a center and choose its head without their involvement.
Its rather ironic that people in the scientific community, whose rights had to be protected in the face of ideological pressure [from creationists], now appear to be suppressing others, says President Sloan. People have always asked questions about the relationship of religious views and the natural phenomena we see in the world. I think it just borders on McCarthyism to call that creation science.
The day after the faculty senate vote, President Sloan addressed the faculty, telling them that he would not close down the Polanyi Center merely because they demanded it. The procedure he had used in setting up the center was no different from the one he and previous administrators had used to establish other centers.
Michael Beaty, director of the Institute for Faith and Learning, notes that they had used the same procedure for setting up the Center for American Jewish Studies, without criticism.
Recognizing that the facultys real objections were not about procedure, Sloan repeated to the faculty an earlier announced plan to form an independent peer review committee to evaluate William Dembskis work and the work of the Polanyi Center. He said that he sympathized with the science faculty over their concern for their reputations, but that the bigger issue is academic freedom. He didnt like the idea of snuffing out a project without giving it a chance to have its work reviewed by peers.
Assuming the committee would impartially address the matter, Dembski welcomed the review. Academic programs need to be held accountable, he said at the time. I would go further than that and say that I value objective peer review. I always learn more from my critics than from the people who think Im wonderful.
Initially, Baylor spokesman Larry Brumley insisted that the committee wouldnt be asked whether the center should be dissolved. Its not a committee to look at whether we should reconsider having the Polanyi Center, Brumley said. Theyre looking at how we can better communicate its purpose and address the concerns of faculty members.
When the committee membership was announced, however, Dembski was surprised to find antagonistic biologists in the majority. Worse, the committee did not include a single person capable of understanding the mathematical arguments made in Dembskis The Design Inference. (This was partially rectified when one statistician was later added to the team.) Neither were Dembskis prospects brightened when the committee chose as its head William Cooper, a philosophy professor who calls the Polanyi Center extremely polarizing and doubtlessly connected to the old-style creationists.
Lingering anger in the biology department is perhaps an understandable reaction after years of ideological assault by creationism activists. But the personal outrage against the very idea of Dembskis work runs even deeper than that. The resentment becomes obvious to any outsider who dares to roam the halls of the Baylor biology department and ask professors for their take on the dispute.
What exactly is intelligent design (ID), and why do the very words incite such fury among some biologists?
What Is Intelligent Design?
ID depends upon a concept known as specified complexity.
Say youre out raking leaves in the backyard. If you were to find little piles of leaves, equally spaced apart in a long line, the arrangement would be an example of specificity, but it could be explained by what fell out of a rolling barrel. Each time the barrel made a revolution, another clump fell out, each spaced apart by about the same distance. The pattern is specified, but not complex.
When you come across thousands of piles of leaves in no particular pattern, thats complex, and it may take billions of overturned barrels to produce another pattern just like it. But its not specified. No intelligent design is required to explain it.
But lets say you come across a thousand leaves arranged as letters spelling meaningful words, sentences, paragraphs, even a whole story–thats specified complexity. Specified complexity creates information and meaning, and that requires intelligent design.
Many scientific disciplines already use such logic to distinguish between phenomena produced by an intelligence from those that are not. The cryptologist, when breaking a code, looks for patterns that create meaning and are not due to chance. SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) does the same in its search for signals of intelligence from space (think Jodie Foster in Contact). Even Quincys forensic science was all about trying to determine whether a death was due to an accident, natural causes, or the design of an intelligence.
William Dembski puts it this way: Specified complexity powerfully extends the usual mathematical theory of information, known as Shannon information. Shannons theory dealt only with complexity, which can be due to random processes as well as to intelligent design. The addition of specification to complexity, however, is like a vise that grabs only things due to intelligence. Indeed, all the empirical evidence confirms that the only known cause of specified complexity is intelligence.
Thus when Dembski observes this specified complexity in DNA messages and protein coding, he infers intelligent design. These patterns give real information in the form of meaningful instructions, precisely analogous to language with words, sentences, punctuation marks, and grammatical rules.
The old scientific creationism based itself upon two tenets: a supernatural agent created all things, and the Bible gives us an accurate account of what happened. In contrast, according to Dembski, intelligent design is built upon three very different tenets:
- Specified complexity is well defined and empirically detectable.
- Undirected natural causes are incapable of explaining specified complexity.
- Intelligent causation best explains specified complexity.
The anti-ID school might argue that in the case of biological evolution, natural causes do eventually produce the specified complexity we see in living things. Natural selection culls through countless mutations over time, eventually producing specified complexity. As the need for survival helps organisms evolve, new information is created and they ratchet their way up into new forms.
The problem with this scenario, according to ID theorists, is that mutations do not produce new information. Natural selection has slim pickins to choose from, even when it picks the fittest. Without an intelligence to produce new information, no amount of re-shuffling of genes will result in a new organism.
Biologist Peter Medawar called this principle the law of conservation of information. Michael Polanyi himself believed that natural selection and mutation, the two mechanisms of neo-Darwinism, are inadequate for the task of producing new anatomies or functions in evolving animals. The focus on information theory is one reason mathematicians have often been more skeptical of rigid Darwinist explanations than their colleagues in biology.
If the creation of new information is such a problem, you ask, then why isnt this common knowledge in our institutions of higher learning? And if intelligent design is such an obvious answer, why havent we heard more about this before? For one thing, no ones ever gotten far enough along to test it before. But William Dembski is getting close.
Bruce Gordon says that design theory, as a scientific strategy, involves two goals: 1. to mathematically characterize designed structures (using stochastic processes theory, probability theory, complexity theory, etc.) to detect intelligent design, and 2. to go into nature and see whether the mathematical structures map onto the physical structures in a way indicative of design.
This, of course, is precisely what Dembski has been preparing to do with his research center. He is laying the groundwork to hire molecular biologists to do research on protein structure and protein folding to test ID. What has to happen, says Dembski, is that ID has to generate research thats more fruitful for biology than neo-Darwinism.
Can design actually be tested as part of science?
Has ID really been tried? repeats Eugenie Scott. I think thats a legitimate question. I dont really think we have an answer yet.
The jury is out on that, says William Cooper, chair of the committee evaluating the Polanyi Center. The mathematical discussion has not progressed sufficiently.
Of course, if the committee pronounces final sentence on the Polanyi Center and ends all discussion now, well never know. The hanging will have occurred before the jury comes back.
On May 10, a month after Baylors big Polanyi conference, a number of members of Congress attended a three hour briefing on intelligent design. William Dembski had been invited to join other ID scientists in the presentation, but the Baylor administration ordered him not to participate. President Sloan wanted to keep Baylor from all appearance of mixing academics with politics.
But some Baylor biologists became so concerned about how far the intelligent design message was spreading that eight of them drafted a long letter to Congressman Mark Souder, an Education Committee member, who had co-hosted the meeting. Their letter was intended to let the congressman know that he had been duped by the ID proponents, and that ID research is not legitimate science. Their attempt to embarrass the ID people was turned around on them when Congressman Souder responded with his own presentation to the House of Representatives, including the reading of their letter into the Congressional Record.
Using their letter as Exhibit A, he told the House that these scientists were practicing viewpoint discrimination in science and science education, and that ideological bias has no place in science.
Referring to the letters frequent use of the phrase materialistic science as their noble cause, the congressman told his colleagues, One senses here not a defense of science but rather an effort to protect, by political means, a privileged philosophical viewpoint against a serious challenge…. As [members of] the Congress, it might be wise for us to question whether the legitimate authority of science over scientific matters is being misused by persons who wish to identify science with a philosophy they prefer.
A preferred philosophy? Could it be that it took an outsider, a congressman from Indiana no less, to get an objective fix on the real source of the conflict?
There is a method used in science today that goes beyond the scientific method. Its based on a philosophy called naturalism, defined by Funk & Wagnalls as the doctrine that all phenomena are derived from natural causes and can be explained by scientific laws without reference to a plan or purpose. Its the without plan or purpose part that nixes intelligent design.
When this philosophy is applied to science, its called methodological naturalism, and for many scientists today it is an unquestioned assumption.
Last spring biology Professor Richard Duhrkopf got his picture in the papers when he accused the Polanyi Center of trying to change the philosophy of science. But is science supposed to have a particular philosophy attached to it? Many of us laymen have always thought that science was supposed to be about applying the scientific method to observations and measurements and gaining as much knowledge of the world as possible, not reaching foreordained conclusions.
Methodological naturalism proposes that scientists be provisional atheists in their work, no matter what contrary evidence they find. Intelligent design proponents are asking simply that science be purified of all philosophical biases. At least, no philosophical bias should be promoted as scientific. Scientists are welcome to hold to personal philosophies and even have them running in the background, as guiding principles, if they think that helps them do their work. But those personal philosophies should not be confused with science.
Berkeley law professor Phillip Johnson stated the issue succinctly at the congressional briefing: Americans, he said, must choose between two definitions of science in our culture: 1. science is unbiased, empirical testing that follows the evidence wherever it leads, or 2. science is applied materialist philosophy which, like Marxism or Freudianism, is willing to impose its authority.
Being Methodologically Correct
The twentieth century was the high point of methodological correctness, says President Sloan. We all know that life is more than sociology or history or anthropology. Unfortunately, people have forgotten that the methodological brackets we apply are purely artificial, intended to be temporary.
ID keeps an open mind, and is entirely agnostic on the subject of religion. The intelligent design that Dembski hopes to detect could belong either to a Biblical God or to an earlier race of Martians who planted us here (like in the movie Mission to Mars).
The idea that life here was seeded from another place may seem pretty far out. But Francis Crick, winner of the Nobel Prize for his co-discovery of DNAs structure, is one of a number of scientists who have seriously promoted the panspermia hypothesis, the idea that life was sent here in the form of seeds from a faraway civilization. The reason for such an idea? Crick wrote that the probability of life originating at random is so utterly minuscule as to make it absurd.
Writing with his colleague Chandra Wickramasinghe, Crick stated: The theory that life was assembled by an intelligence…is so obvious that one wonders why it is not widely accepted as being self-evident. The reasons are psychological rather than scientific.
Asked about the Mission to Mars possibility, Michael Shermer replies, Thats a legitimate hypothesis. Thats testable, thats explainable. But a miracle happened — thats different. In other words, design is detectable and testable–but only as long as you can be sure ahead of time that the designer isnt God.
This is less a philosophy than an intellectual straitjacket. By this reasoning, scientists whose findings point to natural causes may proceed unimpeded, while those whose evidence points to a supernatural cause must immediately close up shop and go home. One thing you have to say for Dembskis intelligent design theory: It makes the ultimate questions real, putting them into our own world. By blocking ID research, methodological naturalism becomes not only a method for doing science, but a method for keeping the deepest human concerns a safe distance from our personal lives.
On September 8 and 9, the peer review committee finally met and even brought in Dembski and Gordon for 45 minutes of grilling. One committee member chastised Dembski for questioning the adequacy of neo-Darwinism. Dembski, however, showed none of the hoped-for contrition. As this issue goes to press, the committee is getting set to announce its recommendation.
What will be the fate of Dembski, Gordon, and their Michael Polanyi Center? Its up to one man only — President Robert Sloan. He can bow to faculty pressure and dissolve the present Polanyi Center, perhaps restaffing it with scholars more to the facultys liking; or clip Dembskis wings by taking away his ability to raise money to run programs. Or he can stand behind the man he hired, make the case that science should be about facts, not McCarthyite lynch mobs — and take the heat that will surely be generated by disgruntled faculty and their sympathetic media.
Either way, the ultimate victim or victor wont be Bill Dembski, it will be unbiased science and humanitys quest to discover the truth — wherever that truth leads us.
Top 10 Accusations
Bill Dembski is guilty of: (a) Politically incorrect thought-crimes. (b) True crimes against science and religion. You decide. Here are the leading accusations–and how the Polanyi Center folks reply:
1. Its all a front for the creationists.
Lewis Barker: These people are creationists. They define that as someone who takes a literal interpretation of Genesis.
Reply: ID is a research project to find out if design is detectable. Unlike creationism, its not concerned with the identity of the designer. It proposes scientific tests that can be falsified, not presuppositions that must be believed. Bruce Gordon says, The Polanyi Center has no interest at all in the Biblical literalist approach. I have considerable problems with it. It doesnt do justice to science nor to Biblical hermeneutics.
2. Its all politics.
Michael Shermer: Their agenda is a re-introduction of Judeo-Christian thought into the public schools. Theyre carrying out a bottom-up strategy, by starting in the academy.
Reply: The Polanyi Centers purpose is research, not getting involved in politics or textbook wars. If ID proves correct, say its adherents, its research results should of course be included in textbooks. But no one at Polanyi is proposing that Genesis be taught in public schools.
3. ID is a science stopper.
Complaining Baylor faculty members, says one journalist, see the intelligent design crowd as seeking to put a tourniquet on inquiry.
Reply: Dembski says that naturalism often stops inquiry, such as in its expectation for the uselessness of vestigial organs and junk DNA, whereas intelligent design profitably continues looking for their function. The call for the dissolution of the Polanyi Center is a better example of putting a tourniquet on inquiry. Even ID proponent Phillip Johnson, the Berkeley law professor most abhorred by ID critics, does not advocate the removal of Darwinism from the curriculum, but that schools should teach the controversy.
4. ID doesnt want peer review or criticism.
Included in the Baylor biologists letter to Congress was the claim: The supporters of intelligent design have never openly presented their data.
Reply: Anyone looking at the list of scientists invited to the Nature of Nature conference should be cured of that notion. The majority were critics of ID.
5. All they say is that God did it. And where did He come from?
Saying that God did it, writes Darwinist Richard Dawkins, only leaves us with an unobservable cause that itself needs to be explained.
Reply: ID, says Dembski, studies the results, the design, not the agent that produced it. Dembski further points out that most new theoretical entities would forever remain off limits if their source had to be fully understood before they could be proposed. Example: Boltzmanns kinetic theory of heat, which invoked the motion of unobservable particles (now called atoms and molecules), which Boltzmann could not explain.
6. ID cant be quantified.
Lewis Barker: There is absolutely no prediction Dembski can make. His arguments do not produce a new research agenda.
Reply: Lewis Barker should read Dembskis monograph, in which he lays out rigorous, mathematical tests to identify complex specified information and to show how CSI always implies intelligent design.
7. All ID can do is criticize evolution.
Eugenie Scott: It is certainly fair to describe them as anti-evolutionists.
Reply: In fact, says Bruce Gordon, intelligent design is compatible with evolution. Many biologists are theistic evolutionists. Design can be understood as built into the initial conditions, so that the subsequent development was continuous and not interrupted by any transcendent intervention. Yet the teleology could still be quantified through the methods of the mathematical techniques of design theory.
8. Its bad theology.
Eugenie Scott: Theologians dont like it because it creates a mammoth God-of-the-gaps problem.
Reply: If intelligent causes exist (as forensic science and SETI already assume), then it is wrong to assume that all gaps in present knowledge must eventually be filled by non-intelligent causes.
9. Its bad science, or not science at all.
Reply: Dembski points out that if you say ID is not science because it cant be observed, then we must also toss out theoretical entities like quarks, super-strings, and cold dark matter. If you say its not science because the design is not repeatable, then out goes the big bang, the origin of life, and the origin of humans. If you say science must deal exclusively with what is governed by law, then out goes the special sciences that deal with intelligent agents, like forensics and SETI. ID advocates arent asking to be cut any more slack than these.
10. ID invokes supernatural causes.
According to Eugenie Scott and biologist/philosopher Michael Ruse, science studies natural causes, and to introduce design is to invoke supernatural causes.
Reply: Dembski says that this contrast is wrong: The proper contrast is between undirected natural causes on the one hand and intelligent causes on the other. Whether an intelligent cause is located within or outside nature is a separate question from whether an intelligent cause has acted within nature. Design has no prior commitment to supernaturalism.
Fred Heeren is a science journalist who writes about modern cosmology, paleontology, and biology. He lives in Wheeling, Illinois.
This article also appears in the November 2000 issue of The American Spectator.