Dembski's Apology: Moving Forward

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.