Bill Dembski has thoughts about COVID-19

Devil Bat movie

Are killer bat experiments by mad scientists only the stuff of B movies?

Although William Dembski is no longer a prominent figure in the Intelligent Design movement he helped found, he does remain among its proponents and occasionally writes about it on his blog. A recent entry entitled "How to Cover Up a Design Inference: The Coronavirus as a Case Study" draws some unexpected, and unintentionally revealing, connections between ID and the COVID-19 pandemic.

He begins with a brief summary of his ID argument:

(My) method took the form of an inference—specifically, an inference to the best explanation. Thus the method asserted that if an event, object, or structure conforms to an independently given pattern (i.e., a specification) and if in the absence of intelligence the probability of matching that pattern is small (i.e., improbability), then a design inference is warranted. Simply put, specified improbability constitutes a method for inferring design. Moreover, things that exhibit specified improbability are best explained as the product of intelligence.

Dembski then refers to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal by medical doctor Stephen Quay and physics professor Richard Muller supporting the belief that SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19, did not arise naturally in an animal host as most experts believe but, rather, was artificially engineered in a Chinese lab. In support of this belief, they claim that SARS-CoV-2 contains the sequence CGG-CGG which “in the entire class of coronaviruses that includes CoV-2… has never been found naturally.” However, according to them, it is commonly used in “gain of function” viral experiments in the laboratory. Their conclusion is that the presence of this sequence demonstrates that SARS-CoV-2 did not have a zoonotic origin but, instead, was created by human scientists. Dembski's response to this argument is, “If this is not a full design inference in the sense of my Cambridge University Press monograph, it’s close.” And while he does qualify his position by saying he is not a conspiracy theorist and has not studied this issue in depth, Dembski clearly considers the possibility that the Chinese manufactured the virus to be at least highly plausible.

But he then goes beyond even that and suggests that the Chinese government may now be engaged in an elaborate cover up operation involving the artificial creation of even more viruses that resemble the transitional forms the would be expected to exist if the virus had arisen naturally. These would then be used to infect bats and other animals. (I must say, I have spent some time reading up on the COVID-19 lab leak theory, but have not encountered anyone else suggesting this further diabolical aspect of the alleged plot, in which pandemics are not only being caused in humans, but in bats and other innocent creatures. The only source Dembski cites is a tweet from a former Fox News reporter who now runs a wine business.)

How does one respond to all this? Well, to begin with this entire argument regarding the CGG-CGG sequence has been definitively debunked. While it is true that this sequence is not found in any of the other known SARS-like coronaviruses, that is a cohort of only three. Among coronaviruses as a whole the sequence is not at all uncommon. Virologist Kristian Anderson, one of the scientists involved in identifying SARS-CoV-2 and sequencing its genome, has provided a detailed explanation of how the virus shows no signs of having arisen through anything other than natural processes. So right out of the block, Dembski is just blowing someone else’s hot air without having bothered to verify whether the claims have any merit, something that would have only required that he take a few quick moments from his “day job as a businessman” to do a Google search.

But, that aside, I do believe Dembski’s article reveals more than he intends about his particular take on ID. His rather detached attitude to the question of the virus’s origin is curious given his self-proclaimed status as one of the world’s leading experts in detecting “design” in nature. It would seem if he really believed his own promotional material, he would be volunteering his services and expertise to help answer a question that has been at the forefront of the single gravest issue facing humanity at this moment: Where did SARS-CoV-2 come from? Surely Bill Dembski can delay his quest to become a cryptocurrency billionaire for just a few days while he helps save the human race, no? Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark do it all the time.

The same question applies to the ID movement as a whole. It’s not as if they have not had anything to say about COVID-19. But their previous efforts were primarily focused on reversing lockdowns and other public health measures that, they feared, would jeopardize Donald Trump’s re-election by harming the economy. Almost a year ago, an article in American Scientist asked if ID had missed its “corona moment.” With the lab leak theory rearing its head yet again, that moment has returned, but ID is still missing it.

That is, if ID actually had anything of value to contribute to the detection of “design” in biology. But, on the contrary, I believe Dembski’s article only serves to accentuate why ID fails even at the theoretical level. As I have said, the argument that the virus’s double CGG sequence is evidence of design is unsound because it turns out this sequence exists in viruses that have evolved naturally. However, the logic of the general argument itself is valid. That is to say, if one were to identify sequences in the virus that do not occur in nature but which are commonly found in viruses that are manufactured in a lab, then that would indeed be strong evidence that SARS-CoV-2 had been manufactured. And, I would argue, this is how we determine whether or not something is designed in all other cases. We do not determine this through measuring “complex specified information” or "irreducible complexity", by employing an “explanatory filter” nor through appeal to any of the other vapid buzz words devised by the ID movement.

Rather, the question of whether something was designed is answered through empirically derived knowledge regarding which things arise through natural processes, and which only arise through being created by intelligent designers. Since bacteria who possess flagella arise thru the natural process of reproduction, we do not conclude that the bacterial flagellum was designed. But since the outboard motor of a boat is not something that arises in nature, but is only manufactured by human beings, we know that it was designed. Without this background knowledge (which is not at all difficult to obtain), there is nothing inherent in the objects themselves that betrays their origin.

Many ID proponents argue that one of the chief hallmarks of “design” is the impossibility of the existence of functional transitional forms between one functional system and another. So it is very odd that Dembski does not indicate he believes there would be any difficulty whatsoever in creating a series of transitional viruses leading up to SARS-CoV-2. It would appear that, as Dembski sees it, the project would only be limited by the mendacity and cunning of the Chinese government.

If one were to present this argument to Dembski or any other proponent of ID, of course, they would almost certainly reject it. However, their actions speak louder than their words. When an opportunity arises that seems tailor-made for the practical application of their “theories”, it does not even cross their mind to take it. And that suggests to me that, deep down, even they realize their ideas are worthless.