Monday, July 03, 2006

Uncommon Condescent

Con`de*scent", n. [Cf. Condescend, Descent.] An act of condescension. [Obs.] --Dr. H. More.

The title of my post is a pun on a pun. I hope that you'll forgive me.

A few days ago I began to read William Dembski's Uncommon Descent. I'd like to take a moment to explain why I don't think I'll return.

First, let me say something about the tone of the posts. An anger suffuses them. Anger directed at whom? For what reason? The object of his anger, I assume, is that part of the scientific and academic community that refuses to take his work with any seriousness. He is quite thoroughly marginalized and will likely remain so. (I mean to make no judgment about the justice of this state of affairs. Rather I only mean to report what seems to me to be the case. Has he been treated unfairly? I have no idea.) Indeed the great majority of his peers will not even so much as take him on. Most, I suspect, don't think it worth their time. The few who might feel some temptation to take on the defenders of ID, moreover, fear that their peers would ostracize them if they did so. Thus Dembski and others of his sort labor mostly in scientific obscurity. (Of course they do possess some cultural notoriety. But this is due to the existence of a community of conservative Christians who find ID congenial.)

But even if I'm wrong in my speculations about the cause and object of his anger, I am quite certain of its existence. The anger most often takes the form of sarcasm. His posts are often deeply, darkly sarcastic. He lashes out at those who have denied him a place at the table, and sarcasm is his weapon of choice. This makes the whole of Uncommon Descent seem like one great fit. It's expressed not by cries but by the written word. It's a clever fit. It's a long fit. But a fit it is.

This is the first of my reasons to give up on Uncommon Descent. My second concerns not the tone of what is said there but the content. Dembski has a quite low opinion of those of his scientific peers who reject ID. Indeed he is quite often openly derisive of them. He accuses them of the most simple and obvious fallacies. He accuses them of bad faith; they quite deliberately, Dembski says, cover over the faults of their view. Now, it might well turn out that some form of ID will become the dominant paradigm within origins science. But no matter if this happens or not, I find it highly unlikely that the men and women upon whom Dembski heaps his derision are guilty of the sins, whether intellectual or moral, of which they're accused. They are not stupid and they are not wicked. Perhaps they are wrong, but their mistakes are for the most part honest.

Don't expect me to say anything about the virtues or vices, whether intellectual or moral, of either this or that foe or this or that ally of ID. Don't expect me to say anything of the vices or virtues, whether theoretical or empirical, of either ID or or the Darwinian account of origins. I simply do not know enough to make any judgments of this sort. In this, I am no doubt like the great majority. We are on the outside and will never know enough about the theories or the theoreticians to make any judgment about character of theoretician or content of theory. Rather we who are outside must look for certain marks of genuine scientific authority and make our judgments based upon that and that alone. What are these marks? Has a person been trained by experts in her field? Does she work at a place known to house experts in her field? Has she published in peer-reviewed journals in her field? Does she have the esteem of her peers? Do her opinions cohere with other experts in the field? Is she free of any entanglements that might compromise her objectivity? Most evolutionary biologists meet these criteria and thus we must trust them and what they say. (Trust them absolutely? Of course not. Error both small and great could still easily creep in. The mere fact that a generation of scientists agree on a certain matter is no guarantee that their opinion is true. But that they agree is good reason for those of us on the outside to believe what they say; for those of us on the outside, that the experts say a thing is good though not conclusive reason to believe it.)

Does Dembski meet these criteria to the same degree as they are met by his opponents? No. Thus we have less reason to trust him than we do his opponents. But even if we should have made a mistake in this, we still can say this with certainty: the charges of intellectual shabbiness and moral corruption that Dembski levels at his opponents are very nearly certainly false.
(Dembski does his cause no favor when he makes such charges. He alienates his peers in the scientific community, and he alienates those such as me who have insufficient knowledge of the content of the disputes to form any independent judgments.)


Tom Gilson said...

I too have sometimes winced at the tone taken at Uncommon Descent, but I wish to point out some things:

1. William Dembski is not the sole author there, though his name is on the masthead. Just a point to make sure it's being seen accurately.

2. I appreciate your not taking a stand on where ID will come out in the long run. As another non-scientist who is interested in the field, I agree completely with that position. Though I advocate for ID, it is not because I'm certain it is totally right (at least in the form put forward by Dembski, Behe, and others); it is because I'm convinced it needs to approached with a strong research program, and given a fair hearing.

3. Regarding Dembski's qualifications:
(a) Has he been trained by experts in his field? He has two Ph.D.s. in fields relevant to his information-processing approach to the question.
(b) Does he work at a place known to house experts in the field? Not currently. It could be argued that his ouster from Baylor was for political rather than academic reasons, though.
(c) Has he published in peer-reviewed journals? Yes. His books were peer-reviewed and published by respected academic houses.
(d) Is he free of any entanglements that might compromise his objectivity? No. Is Richard Dawkins? Is Daniel Dennett? Is Kenneth Miller? Is William Provine? Is E. O. Wilson? Was Darwin? Was Gould? Let's watch out for the genetic fallacy and for ad hominems here.

As to the esteem of peers and coherence with others in the field, everyone, Dembski included, knows that ID is a proposal for a revolution in science. Peer esteem and coherence are undoubtedly marks of good incremental science, but they are irrelevant to revolutionary science. Some revolutions succeed as science (plate tectonics, chaos theory, the bacterial theory of gastric ulcers); some fail (cold fusion). Their success or failure has no correlation to the early acceptance of the theories or the early esteem of the proponents. (How could they? Scientists who propose revolutions are universally scorned in the early days. There is no variance in their level of esteem: it is all at around zero. Where there is no variance there can be no correlations.)

Back to my point 2. These are the kinds of misconceptions that cause me to believe that ID does not typically receive a fair hearing. They are the kinds of things that probably contribute to the way Dembski views the scientific world.

Franklin Mason said...

A few quick responses.

Dembski lacks a degree in any field within biology, and this counts against his use as an authority within origins science, for that is primarily (though not completely of course)a subdiscipline within biology.

(The remarks below draw upon the wikipedia article on Dembski.)

As for Dembski's time at Baylor: he was hired by the president outside the usual channels. This seems to cast into doubt whatever value as an authority his time at Baylor might have otherwise conferred upon him.

Dembski has not published anything on ID within a peer-reviewed journal.

As for the questions I posed about publications, education and so on: these are the marks for which we must look when we ask if may we treat someone as a genuine authority. I stand by them. It might well be that when a revolution upends the foundations of this or that science, we cannot find these marks anywhere. But I would take this to imply that, in the midst of a scientific revolution, we cannot make appeals to authority as when can in other times. This of course does not mean that the revolutionaries (or the conservatives) are wrong. Rather it means only that we on the outside cannot know whose side to take.

I am not guilty of either ad hominem or the genetic fallacy. I did not reject Dembki's views and thus did not make an attack upon his character the reason to reject his views. I did make remarks relevant to his character, but these were used only to explain why I plan no longer to read Uncommon Descent. Moreover, since I did not reject Dembski's views, I did not ask the reader to reject them based upon their origin. I did of course say something about Dembski's status as an authority on the issue of origins science; I think that we cannot rely upon him as an authority b/c the lack of certain marks of authority within his history. But this is not an invitation to reject his views; indeed it is not so much an invitation to think them any less likely than they otherwise would be. Rather its a plea not to think that the probability of what he says is raised for us non-experts simply b/c he's said it. He's not a legitimate authority on the issues at hand.

Franklin Mason said...
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