I saw William Dembski talk last night at the Meacham Auditorium in the University of Oklahoma Student Union. The title of his talk was: Why Atheism is no Longer Intellectually Fulfilling: The Challenge of Intelligent Design to Unintelligent Evolution. He spoke for over an hour, dancing around a number of topics, but the theme that seemed to jump out at me was: I wrote a book. Not only did the cover of The Design Inference flash across the screen at least three times, he also showed a screen shot of the OU library webpage card catalogue entry for the book. (I suppose he was trying to refute the assertion that intelligent design proponents don’t publish their ideas in peer-reviewed math and science journals. The truth is, there is no research into intelligent design. There is no research programme, although Dembski did lay out a ten-point plan; skipped it in the talk, flashed through it in the Q & A. Not holding my breath for that to come to fruition).
The gist of the talk was: “Darwinism” has flaws, and until the “evolutionists” can explain ever step in the evolution of a complex biochemical system (e.g., the flagellum), then it isn’t succeeding as science. He then went on to talk briefly about specified complexity, suggested that it is useful (at least for the study of patents in Russia) and flashed a few pictures of Mount Rushmore and motorcycles.
First, the positives. In his element, Dembski is a lively, interesting speaker. I was so disappointed when I saw him speak on Sunday at Trinity Baptist – speaking on theology, he read the entire sermon from his notes, and delivered a talk that really belonged in an academic lecture. Terribly boring. Last night, I suppose he was in his element. Dembski spoke for over an hour, and kept things going pretty well. He also managed to survive the Q & A. That in itself was something of an achievement.
But what really impressed me was the Q & A. Most of the people asking questions were students – many of them undergrads, I suspect. Almost without exception the questions were intelligent and well-informed. And over the course of more than an hour of questions, there were only two that were supportive –
one from the senior pastor at Trinity (who spoke of his being unconvinced of evolution based on the second law of thermodynamics, an idea with which Dembski sensibly disagreed; OK, so I suck at faces; thanks Russell) and another guy who basically called the students there closed-minded.
While the night was filled with excellent questions, there were some gems. Logan managed to get Dembski to admit that he did not believe that humans and apes had common ancestors. I think that was a pretty major admission. Abbie asked about the exchange she had with Sal Cordova and others at Dembski’s blog. (It started with her refutation of Behe’s Edge of Evolution (also here and here); this was followed by an invitation to discuss the matter at Dembski’s blog. After three posts she was banned from the blog, attacked there and harassed on her blog. See details here, here, here, here and here; plus stuff on UD) – in essence, if intelligent design is so solid, why do they feel the need to harass a mere grad student the way they did. Dembski said he doesn’t handle the daily management of UD and wasn’t aware of the exchange (but was obviously aware enough of the exchange that he knew she was ERV). To which she replied “you were busy at the time composing a letter from the President of Baylor”. I was too busy laughing to see, but Abbie said that Dembski’s look was priceless…deer in the headlights, but oh so much more.
Despite all this, perhaps the most withering critique came from someone who took Dembski to task on his use of the bacterial flagellum. Dembski used the flagellum as an example of an irreducibly complex structure, and said that the putative ancestor, the Type III Secretion System, was much more likely to be a simplification of it than an ancestor (which turns out to be something of a red herring). Anyway, the questioner explained a much simpler (and reducible) evolutionary history of the bacterial flagellum from absorptive pili, which, he said, is supported by recent research. Since Dembski had earlier said (in response to a question about what would make him abandon intelligent design) that an explanation of the evolution of the bacterial flagellum would be a good step towards disproving ID, he was rather put on the spot by this explanation. His responses was first to try to play for time (write this up and get it published) and then to resort to the old creationist argument – details, I need details. In essence saying that, until he is supplied with every step in the evolutionary history, including every mutation, he’s holding on to the assertion that this is irreducibly complex. Weak!
Unfortunately, no one seems to know who the questioner was. Everyone assumed that he was in some other department at OU. Logan chatted with him, but never thought to ask his name. And he left after his question. Who was that masked man?