Dembski Interview on Dick Staub


There was a recent interview with Bill Dembski, leading light o' the ID movement, on Dick Staub. It's mostly the same old garbage, but I thought I'd highlight one part in particular:

  • Q. Well, let me ask you this. If intelligent design became broadly accepted within the scientific community, how would science have to change? In other words, what about the current scientific process would have to be different? Is intelligent design testable right now within science, you know? There's a strict adherence to certain testability quotients and so forth. How does science change if they accept intelligent design?
  • A. Well, I just want to speak to the testability business. I would say intelligent design is testable and, in fact, Darwinian evolution is not testable. Darwin said that for a complex organ to form it would have to form according to a series by a numerous successive slight modifications. And then he said, you know, I can't think of anything that couldn't have formed that way. Well of course, I mean, if you don't specify a process any more specifically than numerous successive slight modification, that anything might be the result of that process, such a process. [...]
  • Claims like this would be irritating if they weren't so hilarious. It's not too uncommon for Dembski to contradict himself, but sometimes the degree is startling. This is the plain fact of the matter: Dembski's method of "detecting design" requires, absolutely, that Darwinian evolution is testable. That's all there is to it. Since he and his fellow ID travelers find "evidence" of design whenever some natural process is supposedly incapable of doing the job, then there's no way he can claim to have evidence of design unless the natural process in question can be definitively ruled out. Dembski has just admitted that his whole design detection methodology is bunk. Nice going.

    Dembski continues:

    And that's all, the Darwinists assume no burden of evidence of proof as a consequence. And that holds to this day. Now, with intelligent design there, you can look at certain biological structures. We're arguing that they are intelligently caused.

    Dembski's argument that biological structures are "intelligently caused" consists entirely of him saying that Darwinian evolution can't account for them. And this is right after he says that Darwinian evolution can't be tested. In typical fashion, he's trying to have his cake and eat it too. Either Darwinian evolution is testable (and found incapable of doing the job), or it's not testable, and therefore we can't reject this particular natural mechanism, let alone the set of all possible natural mechanisms. (And yes, his ID argument requires that all natural mechanisms, even those we might not have thought of yet, be rejected.)

    Many of them are now at the sub-cellular level, these are molecular machines. The most popular one that's been investigated is the bacterial flagellum. It's a little bi-directional motor-driven propeller on the backs of certain bacteria, marvel of nano-engineering, and so we've started to analyze systems like that and argue for their intelligent design.

    It's worth mentioning that Dembski has done one (1) analysis of the bacterial flagellum, which appeared in his book No Free Lunch, and that this analysis consisted of nothing more than multiplying each of the amino acids that make up the flagellar proteins times one another in order to get the probability of the flagellum coming about completely at random. No evolutionary process is even considered. Since no one has ever argued that this was how the flagellum came about, it's a pointless waste of space. Calling it an "analysis" is probably a bit too kind.

    And as far as anyone can tell, that's it. No other "analysis" has been performed either by Dembski or by any other ID advocate on any subcellular system.

    Now, it would be an easy enough thing, in principle, for the Darwinists to come along and say, Hey, this is how sub-systems could have formed. They would have to get a detailed testable step-by-step scenario of how these systems could have formed, according to some Darwinian trajectory or pathway, and if they did that for a number of such systems, I think intelligent design would crumble.

    Except for the minor inconvenient fact that this has been done. There are detailed and testable step-by-step scenarios for the evolution of many subcellular systems that Dembski and others have claimed couldn't evolve, including the bacterial flagellum. So how does Dembski respond? He claims that they aren't detailed enough. Exactly how detailed a hypothesis would need to be in order to satisfy Dembski is something he's never clarified, so this criterion is an endlessly moveable goalpost. No matter how much detail one provides, he can always ask for more. And this brings us right back to the original point: Is ID testable? Not if there's no way to rule it out, or at least reject it for being too unlikely. And that's precisely where Dembski has placed it. Neither he nor any other ID advocate has ever given us a way to independently judge its likelihood (it's always just assumed that some supernatural *Poof!* is perfectly likely), and now he's given us no way to rule it out by virtue of parsimony. If it's not detailed enough, then the evolutionary explanation isn't complete, and so therefore ID cannot be ruled out. (Just a quick aside: there would be no way to rule out ID even if an evolutionary account were complete down to the last quark, so Dembski has to rely on Occam's Razor, i.e., the rejection of an unnecessarily complex explanation. By doing so, he implicitly concedes that ID cannot be tested by virtue of empirical evidence.)

    Most of the rest of the interview is the same old canards, misleading talking points, ad hominems, undefined terms, self-contradictions, and so forth. So I won't waste a valuable Saturday (at work) going through the whole thing line by line. But anyone else can feel free. :)


    I’ve addressed similar claims of Dembski before by concluding that Dembski is a robot because he can’t provide a detailed, step-by-step explaination of how he came to exist.

    It’s hard to find anything concrete in Dembski’s rhetoric; he seldom discusses details of biological systems.

    But in Conservatives, Darwin & Design: An Exchange, he seemingly claims that beavers intelligently design their dams.

    However, beavers build their dams by piling sticks and mud onto wherever they hear rushing water; one can keep beavers from building unwanted dams by keeping them away from that sound, as the Beaver Deceiver does.

    More seriously, he has claimed that SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) uses Complex Specified Information / Specified Complexity. However, it is based on working out what ET’s would broadcast if they wanted to be detected with maximum efficiency, and searching for such broadcasts.

    I’ve written a whole essay on Animal and Extraterrestrial Intelligent Design.

    Claims like this would be irritating if they weren’t so hilarious.

    Actually, its the other way around. They would be far more hilarious if they weren’t so irritating. What’s irritating is that people “believe” them, to the point of having there beliefs interfere with any understanding of what science has achieved and is trying to achieve, where “belief” has no relevance because it tells us nothing outside of “its beyond our control” and “some higher order *decided* that and its not our responsibility to question it.”

    The trouble is, as in politics, what is the cost of “belief” (in something scientifically invalid), or the cost of a lie. The cost to us by accepting or even associating ID as “science” is that the next medical breakthrough, the next big cure or prevention technique for [cancer, MS, parkinsons, whatever], the next simple solution for preserving a species that may go extinct without help, is going to come from some other country or society.

    James Burke and a cohort wrote a book, The Axemaker’s Gift, about the axemakers who created to tools to change the world, and with that how the politicians/leaders gained/kept their power by using the tools the axemakers made, rather than actually trying to control the axemakers. The societies that limited their axemakers through religious practices or political control (e.g., China’s system of bureaucracy and class limits making “invention” irrelevant to progress, thus gunpowder, paper, and printing had nowhere near the effect on them as they did on the west) fell behind in the progress curve.

    Some people [often the “religious right”, which have considerable influence and power over those who are currently making decisions in this congress and administration] have tried to claim that America is going the route of Rome circa 200 AD, where it started to kill itself from within by over-taxation and moral decline. The truth is that those who attempt to stop those two factors of society are also the same ones trying to freeze other factors like our scientific progress and education (aside from those things that directly benefit them like weapons research), and history has shown (China, India, USSR) that any attempt to freeze progress either fails, or destroys the society is was trying to “protect” by leaving it vulnerable to the society that continues to invent and discover and move forward.

    Thus, I can no longer laugh at the ID argument, just as I can no longer laugh at lewis-carroll-like illogic (“we have to declare war on him because he’s a threat to peace”) when its used not as a joke but as a statement of policy.

    (b.t.w., I’m a christian, specifically episcopalian in upbringing. I do believe that God had an “influence” in the otherwise-randomness of mutations that is part of the evolutionary process. However, I also firmly accept that this belief has no relevance in the scientific process/method and the “evolution” question. It can’t be tested; it can’t be proven or disproven. Its a convenience in my head to settle a question we’re not able to answer yet and to reconcile my christian and scientific educations into a coherant whole. If/when “we” are able and do answer it (with true proof, and not just by disproving the existing alternatives), i’ll accept the answer and change my belief (the scientific part of my mind expects that it will be proven, and hopes it’ll be in my lifetime). My “belief”, which parallels many others including some within the “ID” camp, simply doesn’t belong in any science classroom or scientific discussion; i feel comfortable stating it here because I see the point of pandas thumb as being more socially oriented rather than strictly scientific in its approach to the issues).

    I have researched the Creationism/Evolution debate for many years and have written and given speaches on the subject. I have watched the Creation perspective “evolve” from Henry Morris’s Creation Science Institute to it’s latest form, Intelligent Design. ID is just the new model. One has to marvel at the irony that a group that opposes evolution evolves. So it goes.

    Dembski said:

    “Darwin said that for a complex organ to form it would have to form according to a series by a numerous successive slight modifications. And then he said, you know, I can’t think of anything that couldn’t have formed that way. “

    Where did Darwin say that then? It sounds like he’s paraphrasing a misquote here.

    The closest thing to what Dembski claimed that I could find is this, from chapter VI of the Origin:

    “The tail of the giraffe looks like an artificially constructed fly-flapper; and it seems at first incredible that this could have been adapted for its present purpose by successive slight modifications, each better and better fitted, for so trifling an object as to drive away flies; yet we should pause before being too positive even in this case, for we know that the distribution and existence of cattle and other animals in South America absolutely depend on their power of resisting the attacks of insects: so that individuals which could by any means defend themselves from these small enemies, would be able to range into new pastures and thus gain a great advantage. It is not that the larger quadrupeds are actually destroyed (except in some rare cases) by flies, but they are incessantly harassed and their strength reduced, so that they are more subject to disease, or not so well enabled in a coming dearth to search for food, or to escape from beasts of prey.”

    What he really said was, to paraphrase, “It seems incredible that complex organs could form by slight modifications. You know, we shouldn’t reject it out of hand, though, and here’s why…”

    I would like to complement Shelby on that wonderful comment and add a bit of my own.

    I started, from the standpoint of a Biology student who accepts evolution, looking at ID with an open mind. After reading some of their works, though, I am convinced that the movement has nothing to do with giving students alternate views of how life arose. If they did, they would be encouraging, as I do, mandated philosophy classes. Science is our understanding of how the universe is and works. When something in science is challenged, it is done so by the same process that brought it into place, and, more importantly, how the misconceptions arose in the first place. Everything in science can be measured more or less in degrees of certainly, from obvious to theoretical, and tells us what we know that brought us to that conclusion. Outside of the realm of science is that of philosophy. Science has yet to prove or disprove god and other supernatural stuff (that’s why it’s called supernatural), so that is an issue of individual choice. ID clamors about their choice being denied in the science classroom, so why aren’t they proposing that ID be taught in a philosopical setting? Only one possibility: They don’t want anyone, particularly students, access to an open forum for thoughtful speculation for what’s beyond the realms of known science. After all, the only other enemy of fundamentalism besides science is other religions. ID’s strategy becomes clear: The only way to debunk evolution is to debunk the scientific method. After that, all they have to do is prevent other religions besides their poorly-disguised good-old-fashioned Creationism from filling the gap. Once that happens, it’s just one small step back into a medieval theocracy. Some ID advocates are extreme enough to go out and say that. But the rest of the movement downplays that, focusing on deceiving the public.

    Anyway, just my thoughts. Beyond that, great site everybody!

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    This page contains a single entry by Steve Reuland published on April 3, 2004 1:19 PM.

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