Dembski’s Apology: Moving Forward

| 97 Comments

by Kevin Padian, Professor, Department of Integrative Biology; Curator, Museum of Paleontology; University of California at Berkeley.

Last Tuesday William Dembski began posting diatribes on his weblog accusing me of racism. He based them on a second- or third-hand report that he received from one of his acolytes who got the basic facts wrong. Dembski didn’t bother to check them before jumping to his accusation.

But worse things have happened in the world. I could have responded to Dembski immediately, because I was sure of my facts, and I’m happy to stand on my record. But I wanted to wait until I could get a tape of the talk, and to be sure that no one could reasonably interpret my comments as Dembski and his acolytes did.

That took until Friday afternoon, at which point I immediately sent an e-mail to Dembski’s Discovery Institute address. On Monday morning I received an apology from him, which he posted on his website. I consider the matter closed.

However, I would like to clarify the record on several additional points that have come up:

  • I received not a single phone call or email as a result of the postings that Dembski allowed on his blog. That doesn’t excuse aiding and encouraging harassment. But it suggests that most of his audience has better judgment than some would credit.
  • The contrast is interesting between the postings of people who actually went to my talk and those who did not.
  • I hope that all those posting to PT empathize with the people of the Berkland Baptist Church and other Asian-Americans who may have been offended because they were misled by Dembski’s weblog.
  • I would like to take a minute to defend the University of California at Berkeley, because Dembski’s posting, and the subsequent posts on his site, brought up an issue that needs to be addressed. Berkeley prides itself on its diversity. Like all typical Berkeley faculty members, I have taught, advised, and mentored students of all backgrounds – in my case for over a quarter century. Three of my recent Ph.D. students are of minority groups (Asian-American, Latina, and Native American), and each of them has done splendidly and won tremendous academic awards. In recent years four of my undergraduates have published work with me; three were from minority groups. Everyone in my department does such things and more. This is a Berkeley tradition.
  • As a result of this incident, much has been said on PT and UD about the question of student religious beliefs and letters of recommendation. Personally, I’m delighted when students who are taught not to accept evolution are broad-minded enough to take my classes. I wouldn’t dream of trying to convert them; I admire them for wanting to learn the scientific basis of what they’ve heard so much about. They’re terrific people. I think all my colleagues at Berkeley share these views. I happily write these students letters of recommendation, because I can comment not only on their scholarship but on their strength of character.

I should also clear up some misapprehensions that persist on the UD website and elsewhere, including a comment that Dembski attached to his otherwise appropriate retraction and apology. The comparison that Alan Gishlick and I made between Jonathan Wells and The Talented Mr. Ripley – now the stuff of myth and legend on ID sites – was restricted to the opening scene of the film, where Ripley ingratiates himself to unsuspecting people by answering questions with half-truths. That’s the rhetoric and the standard of scholarship that Wells uses throughout his book, as Gishlick and I analyzed it. And that was the limit of our comparison; it was Wells who brought up the “psychotic murderer” stuff, I presume to cast himself as a victim and draw attention away from the distortions and cheap shots found in his book. We justified our comparison to his rhetoric throughout our review. To claim otherwise is inaccurate and inflammatory.

Second, because Dembski and his bloggers continue to misstate how others use these terms, “Christian” does not equal “fundamentalist,” because fundamentalists are only a minority of the people who identify themselves as Christian. Neither term is equivalent to “ID supporter,” either. I do regard fundamentalism as the greatest problem that faces the civilized world in this century, because (as John McCain notes) it encourages agents of intolerance. This applies to fundamentalism of all stripes – Muslim, Christian, Jewist, atheist, whatever – and I make that clear in my talks. Because these people can’t get along with each other, everyone in the world suffers as a result. It seems monstrous to me that some people, such as one of the co-bloggers on Uncommon Descent, would regard as “bigoted” the opposition to murderous actions taken by any fundamentalists in the name of religious belief. Relatively few fundamentalists are violent extremists, the people who are really causing all the trouble. But I’ve never met a “moderate extremist.” And it’s up to non-violent fundamentalists as well as moderates to put a stop to this.

I hope these points show that there is a difference between objecting to someone else’s opinion about something and mischaracterizing their work and statements. We all make mistakes, and we’re all glad when they’re corrected.

97 Comments

Personally, I’m delighted when students who are taught not to accept evolution are broad-minded enough to take my classes. I wouldn’t dream of trying to convert them; I admire them for wanting to learn the scientific basis of what they’ve heard so much about. They’re terrific people. I think all my colleagues at Berkeley share these views. I happily write these students letters of recommendation, because I can comment not only on their scholarship but on their strength of character.

I’m not sure what you mean by the above. “convert” is an odd word to use in a scientific context. I do hope you dream of trying to educate them about the science. It’s unfortunate that some people confuse their religion with science.

My favorite part of this was when Davescot drew a cartoon with Padian as a Klan member, because Padian didn’t like religious terrorists. Talk about Unintentional Irony.

I’m not sure what you mean by the above. “convert” is an odd word to use in a scientific context.

It seems clear enough to me that Padian is responding to a common general claim made by antievolutionists that professors are out to “convert” believers.

You don’t have to go far to find precisely this charge being made of college professors:

Professor Richard Weisenberg, in an attempt to justify the teaching of Darwinian macroevolution, layed out in 2000 a perfect example of the scientifically absurd and very circular argument that Darwinists use to subtly convince students to become devout atheists.

(Source)

And, ironically enough, here’s essentially the same thing from William Dembski’s introduction for “Uncommon Dissent” (the book):

Thus, what many Darwinists desire is not just more talented communicators to promote Darwinism in America’s biology classrooms but an enforced educational and cultural policy for total worldview reprogramming sufficiently aggressive to capture and convert to Darwinism even the most recalcitrant among “religiously programmed” youth.

(Source)

So, if you find the word “convert” inappropriately used in this setting, go take it up with the people who brought it up as an issue in that setting, the antievolutionists.

No, I take that back. My favorite part was when Davescot called the word “Asian” a “racially-loaded term”. LOL. I (heart) Uncommonly Dense.

An excellent commentary, but I must disagree with the last line, “We all make mistakes, and we’re all glad when they’re corrected.” Yes, we all make mistakes, but welcoming correction seems to be all too rare. In part, this arises from simple ego; people generally do not like to admit that they have done something wrong. In part, it may arise from a realistic fear that others might hound you about the mistake for the rest of your life.

The problem seems to be particularly prevalent among creationists. Despite occasional lists of arguments creationists should not use, there are remarkably few creationists claims in the last century which essentially all creationists now reject. This includes ID arguments. Examples from the sciences, on the other hand, are common.

Ironically, correcting mistakes is an essential part of intelligent design (real intelligent design, not what ID talks about). Progress would be impossible without it. Perhaps the reason why the ID arguments have not progressed is because ID proponents rarely practice intelligent design themselves.

Actually I believe Dave Scot said that the word “Asian-American” is a racially-loaded term. Despite the fact that the term was invented by Asian-Americans themselves …

Dembski’s now instead decided to accuse Ernst Haeckel of being a racist. Evidently he feels safer picking on the dead. :-)

The dead cannot sue for libel or slander. IANAL, but I don’t think estates can do so on behalf of the deceased, either. Corrections welcome…

Last Tuesday William Dembski began posting diatribes on his weblog accusing me of racism. He based them on a second- or third-hand report that he received from one of his acolytes who got the basic facts wrong. Dembski didn’t bother to check them before jumping to his accusation.

Consider yourself lucky. Dembski Called the Department of Homeland Security on Eric Pianka, based on secondhand information.

Ordinarily, one cannot sue for defamation of the dead. Some states have considered legislation allowing estates to sue for defamation of the dead. I am aware of no state that has passed such a law, but I haven’t been keeping track and some state might have. If the estate of Haeckel is the prospective plaintiff, however, any such claim will be too late. In nearly every state, defamation actions face a relatively short statute of limitations, and Haeckel has been dead a long time.

The hilarious thing is, Dembski, who’s now pontifiicating about 19th century racism, teaches at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. The Southern Baptists were split off from the Northern Baptists in 1845 specifically in order to uphold slavery, and maintained segregationist policies for a full century after the Civil War. If I were living in that particular glass house, I wouldn’t be throwing stones.

Fundamentalist atheists? Did I read that right, on this board?

I’m confused–how is it possible for an atheist to be a fundamentalist?

I’m confused—how is it possible for an atheist to be a fundamentalist?

We believe in the literal truth of nothing.

Fundamentalist atheists? Did I read that right, on this board?

I’m confused—how is it possible for an atheist to be a fundamentalist?

My guess would be that Padian is referring to what I’ve termed “fanatical evangelical atheists” – the sort of people who are not content merely with their own state of non-belief in deities, but will not rest until everybody else joins them in that state.

I received not a single phone call or email as a result of the postings that Dembski allowed on his blog. That doesn’t excuse aiding and encouraging harassment. But it suggests that most of his audience has better judgment than some would credit.

or they’re just lazy.

lazy in thought, lazy in mind, lazy in body.

Padian wrote:

I do regard fundamentalism as the greatest problem that faces the civilized world in this century, because (as John McCain notes) it encourages agents of intolerance. This applies to fundamentalism of all stripes — Muslim, Christian, Jewist, atheist, whatever

This statement is devoid of substance unless you define “fundamentalism.” In particular, who falls into the category of Christian fundamentalist? What are the defining characteristics? One would think you’d be careful with your terms, given that you view it as the greatest problem faced by the civilized world.

If the discussion starts focussing on personal commenter matters, the whole lot will go over to the Bathroom Wall. Fair warning.

Actually I believe Dave Scot said that the word “Asian-American” is a racially-loaded term. Despite the fact that the term was invented by Asian-Americans themselves …

I’m confused. Why is this “dave scott” name/character so important? I assume he’s some kind of expert or has published something.

*grin*

Fundamentalist atheists? Did I read that right, on this board?

I’m confused—how is it possible for an atheist to be a fundamentalist?

Fundie is a state of mind, not a religious position. Like stupidity, it’s found in roughly the same proportions all over.

Atheists in countries that are mostly Christian do have a slight advantage - Fundies will tend to default to the most obvious form of daftness available*, which means that in general they don’t hold to our viewpoint. However, there are strong counterexamples, and they’re likely to become disproportionately more prevalent as atheism gains more mindshare.

* Note: not (necessarily) saying that Christianity is daft here, just that the versions Fundies go for usually are, and that in any Christian country there will usually be a few of these floating around.

‘m confused. Why is this “dave scott” name/character so important? I assume he’s some kind of expert or has published something.

Is that you, Dave?

I’m confused. Why is this “dave scott” name/character so important? I assume he’s some kind of expert or has published something.

HA

The dead cannot sue for libel or slander. IANAL, but I don’t think estates can do so on behalf of the deceased, either. Corrections welcome…

I believe the lone counterexample to this would be if the estate of the dead were owners of some kind of intellectual property still in play, the validity, sales, etc of which could be impacted by the slander or libel.

In which case you’d have to prove a standard of slander or libel and prove it was harmful, but I believe it’s theoretically possible.

Obviously inapplicable in this case. However, I hereby reserve the right to slander the snot out of Dembski when he dies.

“the sort of people who are not content merely with their own state of non-belief in deities, but will not rest until everybody else joins them in that state”

Yeah. I dislike proselytizing in any form.

I didn’t think much of Dembski’s retraction and apology. Padian has responded to the whole situation with far more grace than I could have mustered. He’s currently at the top of my list of admirable people.

JeffW– DaveScot is one of the co-bloggers on Dembski’s Uncommon Descent.

Oh yeah…and if DaveScot has published anything or is an expert in anything, I do not know what it is.

BTW, the “JeffW” posting earlier in this thread provided a different email address than the “jeffw” who has posted here regularly before. If I get any response from an email inquiry, I will see about getting those two to use different posting handles.

My guess would be that Padian is referring to what I’ve termed “fanatical evangelical atheists” — the sort of people who are not content merely with their own state of non-belief in deities, but will not rest until everybody else joins them in that state.

Wouldn’t that fit Robert Ingersol? It seems to apply to Richard Dawkins.

Corkscrew, but those guys that Gene Expression is talking about are fundy in their racism, not their atheism.

Like I tell people who try to claim that atheism is a religion - atheism is just a charcteristic of someone’s belief. They can be atheistic mysticalists, atheistic materialists, atheistic racists or whatever. There is nothing in atheism that requires or precludes any other kind of belief system, except non-acceptance of the belief in god(s).

Many people, even atheists, believe that atheism is the cause of their other belief systems, but I believe it is just a “symptom.”

Oh yeah…and if DaveScot has published anything or is an expert in anything, I do not know what it is.

That’s why Intelligent Design is so great. People who’ve never published anything or taken any relevant classes in biology can be experts in it. It’s very nonelitist that way.

“People who’ve never published anything or taken any relevant classes in biology can be experts in it.”

That’s why the DI are so big on press releases. Press releases don’t need peer-review.

Bill Gascoyne Wrote:

In this case, a “crutch” and a “guide” share the quality of being assistants, and when you leg heals or you learn the way for yourself, they become superfluous.

That’s my intended meaning. No simile/metaphor/analogy is perfect. To me, “crutch” captures the idea of a passive, temporary aid that people sometimes hold onto after they no longer truly need it, or use despite never needing it in the first place because they don’t realize that. Also, “cane” captures the idea of a similar tool that people sometimes use for a purpose completely different than its typical or intended purpose. These are the dimensions of religion/spirituality I wanted to address.

Raging Bee, I don’t want to get into a line-by-line parse war, so I’ll respond with another amusing train of non-sequiturs. I don’t necessarily know that a particular person holds such beliefs wrongly. Sometimes it might be impossible to know. But based on people who have held such beliefs and later realized they did so wrongly, I conclude that such a state does exist. My hope is that everyone in that position can come to that realization. Maybe for some people it’s not possible in practice. If so, it wouldn’t be the first time I was overly idealistic. I don’t get “sniffy” about it, but I would urge anyone who has found religion helpful to think hard about how integral it really is to their lives and selves.

Are all unreasonable beliefs indistinguishable and equally dangerous? Of course not, and I didn’t say they were. But I definitely do think that unreasonable beliefs are inherently dangerous. Since reasonable alternatives exist, why take any degree of risk? In some cases, as above, it may not be possible in practice. I find that harder to accept, but I generally can. I’d still urge people to be reasonable, though. Or, in simple answer to “Why “retire” a tool that’s still known to work and get results?”: because better tools are available.

Aren’t we overdue for a Clouser drive-by about now?

Aren’t we overdue for a Clouser drive-by about now?

You have to speak the words “Genesis” and “literal” to invoke the Clouser.

damnit, Lenny, you know that some idiot is gonna see that and just HAVE to try it.

countdown to Clouser…

Is that like “Beetlejuice! Beetlejuice! Beetlejuice!”?

Dang Lenny I KNEW I was doing something wrong! So when Carol says that a Genisis day is roughly a billions years long she is literally proving genisis wrong. I’d never have guessed. ….Don’t worry though I haven’t invoked her, she has me on her list of goyim who will not be spoken to. Thank yehovah (Carols (secret) ronunciation…exactly)

Sir_Toejam Wrote:

countdown to Clouser…

3…

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