The Great Debate

by Ellery Schempp, Ph.D.

I attended tonight at Boston University The Great Debate: “Should public schools teach Intelligent Design along with Evolution?”

The Debate Participants:


  • Edward H. Sisson, Esq. Partner, Arnold and Porter, Washington, D.C. Mr. Sisson advised witnesses at the Kansas evolution hearings
  • Professor Bill Dembski, Ph.D. Senior Fellow, Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture
  • Nick Barber, Senior, Broadcast Journalism major, Boston University College of Communication


  • Eugenie C. Scott, Ph.D. Executive Director, National Center for Science Education
  • Professor James Trefil, Ph.D. Robinson Professor of Physics, George Mason University; co-author, Dictionary of Cultural Literacy
  • Neil St. Clair, Sophomore, Broadcast Journalism and Political Science major, Boston University College of Communication and College of Arts and Sciences

The Tsai Center has a capacity of 525 and I was turned away for it being filled. Managed to get in late. The audience was 90% undergrads.

Here are my impressions:

(please note that quotes are approximations from hurried notes, my gist is here)

As a long-term member of NCSE and supporter of Genie Scott, and reader at Pandas Thumb and allied sites, there was little new. Scott made the usual arguments that ID is not science, that ID is “creationism lite”, that ID posits an “unlimited, unconstrained designer”, and is playing games about “who the designer is”. That the DI is only interested in teaching “evidence against evolution”, but has nothing positive to offer.

Scott said that Behe has lost faith in “intelligent design” as a phrase and is now promoting “sudden emergence theory”. First I heard of this. Scott scored good points when she said that ID cannot answer the questions of how? and when? I thought the when–the time frame for “intelligent meddling” could have been expanded.

Scott: “We know designed tools in archeology because we know that is what humans do, how they do this, and why–the purpose. But we do not know why or how the bacterium flagellum arose.” “It is an artificial dichotomy to assert that there are intelligent causes and natural causes.” “The SETI argument from ID is tiresome; sure, scientists look for patterns to distinguish a signal from noise, but this in no way shows that there is an ‘intelligent designer’.” “Labeling -isms is a rhetorical strategy–Darwinism, evolutionism–but such labels are not a substitute for a transcendent understanding.”

Dembski is a tall, lanky figure who speaks without notes and wanders on stage. He started out quote mining from John Gerhart and Marc Kirschner (GK), The Plausibility of Life: Resolving Darwin’s Dilemma. (Yale University Press, 2005), to the effect that “the scientific consensus of small genetic mutations accumulating to new species is an illusion, as Scott says.” “We need a radically new understanding, according to GK.” “Evolution is like a woman who goes for plastic surgery multiple times; after all the cutting and pasting… it is all the same…” I didn’t hear this last phrase clearly, so this is not a quote–the audience giggled. I was lost wondering how plastic surgery fit into the argument. Surely this was a dig against women.

Dembski: “The study of patterns in nature is best explained by intelligence… archeology and SETI show this.” “There are reliable ways of distinguishing between random/chance structures and purpose structures.” Dembski used the phrases “design detection/design inference” many times without ever once saying how to detect. The phrase “design inference” seemed to me to be hollow–because my tomato plants are wilted and have yellow-tipped leaves, I infer/deduce from previous experience that a frost hit them. Dembski uses the term to mean “there must have been a purpose, therefore ID.”

Dembski: “in any other context, the merit of ID would be recognized. It is the evolutionists that prevent this.” {not a quote, but the gist as I heard him speak}. “Evolution is a theory of processes, going from point A to point B. This theory is not working; it is not detailed; Darwin had no idea of the internal structure of a cell.”

James Trefil spoke next: “There are external tests, and it is interesting to contrast the legal position of witnesses in the courts to what IDists proclaim. The courts have set up rigorous criteria for ‘expert witnesses’; they must meet the tests of recognized evidence, facts widely viewed as established and verifiable, and independent of any vested interest.” Trefil contrasted this judiciary requirement to ID, saying that ideas to be “presented in school classrooms should not have a lower standard”.

Trefil went on to discuss how gold nuggets form, that random accumulations of gold atoms would be ridiculously improbable, but that we understand geothermal and mineralogical processes now and understand how they form. I think his point was that previously un-understood matters have yielded to scientific investigations over the decades.

Sisson, a lawyer in the Philip Johnson mold, spoke on the “tyranny of the majority” re evolution. I thought this curious. His view was that there are these unconscionable, atheist elites, and he doesn’t like them. Evolution is an elitist notion, and he emphasized “as a lay person” and quoted lines from three textbooks to the effect that “complexity is unexplainable” thus ID is right. An argument to a jury, perhaps. That Dawkins and Darwin have it all wrong, that “facilitated variation” is a brief without a proper rebuttal in a court. ID is in the court of public opinion. {I imagine him as a prosecutor–to hell with the truth, we’ll get a conviction of these pervos, drugos, evos.}

Sisson said that “life is so extraordinary”, but the evolutionists have “no Bible in their set of data [sic]”. He went on to say that he could refute every one of the pages in a large stack on his desk, printed out from MIT’s or BU’s Bio 106 course, but he did not have sufficient time. The comment about “no Bible in their set of data” was especially telling.

I was particularly interested in the audience reactions. Comments were accepted from about 20 audience members, lining up to the left (affirm) and right (negative).

Some excerpts:

  1. Atheism is a religion that denies a higher power. Archeology shows this.

  2. We can infer design from the fact that the fundamental physical constants are tuned. {I think–the fundamental constants are such that they allow life forms and cranky consciousnesses to form–if the constants were different, we would not be here to argue the matter!}

  3. Kevin: as an English major, I see many subjective interpretations of poetry and literature. Isn’t ID the same?

  4. Katie: evolution presents a one-sided view. ID is a good balance.

  5. no name: Evolution is not random; evolution is the cumulative effect of traits kept and lost. Negative traits give way to positives. Isn’t this the way in society in general?

  6. no name: There may be equal theories, but the presupposition of a higher power is an argument against using taxpayer dollars to fund ID. The First Amendment, etc.

  7. no name: I am confused between how ID is detected and how ID is installed. ID seems to offer no explanation of the mechanisms or the principles involved when the “designer” chooses to act. {me, too; the audience applauded}

  8. Ryan: evolutionists can’t handle the truth; the pyramids, the Egyptians, therefore ID. {my mind lost contact during this}.

  9. Mathers: What do IDists hope to achieve? Dembski admitted that it was “exposure”. Why did DI/Dembski hire an expensive PR firm in Washington, a firm that also represents big oil firms? Isn’t this a sign that ID/Dembski/Behe/DI are in league with PR perceptions rather than scientific ways of thinking? {I have no idea about the allegations.}

  10. no name: In 10 years, we humans will certainly be able to create a primitive cell in the lab. What then, ID?

Overall, I think the audience of mostly undergrads was about equally divided. There was no poll.

I was disappointed that the pro-evo side did not make a strong case for what evolution does explain, and beautifully. Why mammals have a common blood structure (Types A,B,O also in chimps) based on cells, in contrast to circulating proteins (cf. hemocyanin, a copper-based porphyrin oxygen-carrier found in e.g. lobsters). How human embryos have tails until late in development. How large mammalian herbivores could only develop after the evolution of grasses. There is a wonderful story of what evolution does give us an understanding of, and the legalisms (nonsense about complexity; specified, irreducible complexity, supernatural interventions, biology as distinct from chemistry, etc.) of ID short-changes us.

I introduced myself to Dembski. He shook my hand happily. I said, “You know that I started the Supreme Court case about Bible-reading in the public schools. I oppose everything you say.” He took it in good stride and mumbled.

Ellery Schempp was the primary student plaintiff in Abington School District v. Schempp, which declared mandatory bible readings in public schools unconstitutional. He is a physicist residing in Boston.

Editor’s Note: This was promoted from a comment that didn’t belong where it was made.