Dissent Out of Bounds on Uncommon Dissent (Oops, make that "Descent")

The weblog of William Dembski is called “Uncommon Dissent Descent” (UD). It has a reputation for banning unwanted commenters (read: “evolution defenders”), but generally on the grounds that they’re obstreperous and disruptive. However, it’s becoming clear that it’s not just disruptive behavior that gets one banned: It’s also merely disagreeing, calmly and lucidly, with DaveScot.

Recently Dembski posted some remarks about ID in the United Kingdom and invited comment from UK residents. One UK resident, “Febble”, accepted the invitation. Febble remarked that she had no objection to intelligent design being taught in the UK, since under Dembski’s definition of “intelligent”, Darwinian natural selection is intelligent. She wrote

I am happy to accept “Intelligent Design” as a scientific hypothesis to account for the development of life, as proposed by yourself, Dr Dembski, as long as you stand by this definition of intelligence:

’ by intelligence I mean the power and facility to choose between options–this coincides with the Latin etymology of “intelligence,” namely, “to choose between” ‘

From Intellligent Design Coming Clean

However, such a hypothesis need not (and should not) be presented as an “alternative to evolution” as it is described in the Truth In Science materials. Far from rejecting an agent “with the power and facility to choose between options”, this is exactly what the Theory of Evolution postulates as the agent of evolutionary change - a process of_selection_ (aka “choice”) between options.

That did not go over well. DaveScot, Dembski’s bouncer, first responded with sarcasm:

Survival of the survivors. Brilliant!

I guess we can all go home now. Case closed.

and then within minutes moved on to the core ID argument: ‘Computers are really complex and they’re designed, and cells are really really complex so they must be designed too’.

Well, that didn’t work. Febble (a Ph.D. neuroscientist, a Christian theist, and a knowledgeable evolution supporter) pointed out that she was only using Dembski’s own operational definition. She went on:

My own view is that life is a profoundly algorithmic phenonemon, and it is the richness of its algorithmic structure that gives rise to its “specified complexity”. It did not arise by chance, it arose from rules - algorithms. And a key algorithm is the if…then statement. In that sense, I consider Dr Dembski correct - biological systems are intelligent systems, arising from intelligent processes.

Where I part company from the ID movement, as opposed to the concept of ID itself, is the frequent implication that intelligent design is coterminous with intentional design. I am happy with Dr. Dembki’s operational definition of intelligence, which includes the concept of choice between options, but does not include consciousness or intention. Dr Dembski does not argue, as I understand him, that consciousness or intention are necessary to produce a pattern with “specified complexity”, merely the “power and capacity to choose between options”. (Italics original)

Note that Dembski (and DaveScot) can’t invoke intention as part of their ‘scientific’ ID – Dembski explicitly ruled the intentionality question out of bounds for science in the article Febble cited, “Intelligent Design Coming Clean”.

So DaveScot moved on to … wait for it … ‘Biological stuff is much more complicated than Darwin thought, and so it must have been designed’, throwing in “probabilities” (just the word, no numbers) for good measure.

Febble very calmly described the notion of cumulative selection, illustrating how evolution by natural selection is a sort of learning algorithm, and reminded DaveScot that chemistry is relevant to understanding how the genetic “code” in DNA is transcribed and translated into proteins that do stuff in cells..

DaveScot then launched a barrage of creationist fog:

* Natural selection works very strongly only in weeding out catastrophic mutations. It is exceedingly poor at fixing beneficial mutations.

* Thus in the fossil record we observe 999 out of 1000 species going extinct in an average of 10 million years without generating any new species during that time. (That’s a new one on me.)

* Natural selection is a conservative force. It works to keep species the same until enough less than disastrous mutations pile up so that extinction occurs at the first major environmental stress.

* The bit of evolution rm+ns can’t adequately explain is the abrupt origin of new species with markedly different and unique anatomical features which is also part of the indisputable testimony of the fossil record.

(Text DaveScot’s; formatting RBH’s)

And so on. I’m put in mind of Philip Kitcher’s term for ID: “dead science”. (Elaborating on the dead science theme, in his new book Living with Darwin Kitcher refers to ID proponents as “resurrection men”.)

Again, Febble responded calmly, dealing with the several misconceptions in DaveScot’s account. Salvador made a brief appearance with his normal derailing commentary, but Febble hauled the discussion back to the main point: Dembski’s operational definition of intelligence and its congruity with natural selection.

The exchange went on for several more posts, with Febble making her points calmly and with respect, and DaveScot responding that Febble doesn’t really understand this or that aspect, not of ID, but of his strawman caricature of evolution. Then, after two such posts by DaveScot within 10 minutes, abruptly and with no intervening posts by Febble, DaveScot posted this:

febble is no longer with us - anyone who doesn’t understand how natural selection works to conserve (or not) genomic information yet insists on writing long winded anti-ID comments filled with errors due to lack of understanding of the basics is just not a constructive member - good luck on your next blog febble

I encourage folks to read the exchanges for themselves, and judge the grounds for DaveScot’s precipitate banning of Febble. I’m not here suggesting that she should be reinstated on UD, but rather that the set of exchanges illustrates both the poverty of the arguments offered on UD, and more interesting, the paranoid defensiveness in the face of dissent from a Christian theist who dares disagree, on scientific grounds, with the UD bouncer. It’s really kind of a hoot: Uncommon Dissent Descent can’t bear to hear informed dissent.

Febble’s comments on UD constitute a sort of informal peer review – the testing of ideas by (in this case relatively friendly) critics. Febble is a self-identified (in that comment thread) Christian theist. She was calm and polite throughout. And what happened? Banned. So much for peer review.

Febble and I have corresponded about this affair, and we disagree. She suggests that what we’re seeing is the formation of a niche species within ID creationism on UD, while I argue it’s merely yet another a demonstration of the deployment of Freudian ego defense mechanisms by IDists.

I’ll note also that Febble’s argument that natural selection is “intelligent” on Dembski’s definition is not unique to her. In 1999 Wes Elsberry made a similar point at greater length, concluding that:

The “actualization-exclusion-specification” triad mentioned above also fits natural selection rather precisely. One might thus conclude that Dembski’s argument establishes that natural selection can be recognized as an intelligent agent.


Edited to add: A commenter pointed out that I called Dembski’s blog “Uncommon Dissent”, rather than “Uncommon Descent”. I’ve corrected that error. Perhaps it accounts for the intolerance of dissent there.