Response to Paul Gross, by William A. Dembski

 

A few years back, well-known skeptic Michael Shermer and I were speakers at Baylorís The Nature of Nature conference. During evening refreshments, we discussed how we could generate funds for our respective causesóhe to promote skepticism and debunk people like me, and me to promote intelligent design and debunk Darwinism (which underwrites Shermerís brand of skepticism). We agreed that we should start a highly visible campaign against each other in which we argue the dangers of the otherís position. Having escalated the conflict between us, we could then go to our natural constituencies and urge them to fund each of us against the other. Of course, nothing ever came of that conversation. But we had a chuckle. And both our causes have since done quite well financially.

 

I tell this story because when I read Paul Grossís savaging of intelligent design and of my work in particular in the NASís Science Insights, I couldnít help but see it as a gift. Here he was doing everything I would have liked Michael Shermer to do for me, only I didnít have to respond in kind. What do I mean? Itís one thing if a critic has truly substantive arguments that damage your position. But itís another when the critic makes such transparently feeble arguments that a few simple observations demolish the criticism. Paul Gross is such a critic. And critics like this are wonderful for generating support from oneís natural constituency: ďYou mean you have to deal with that sort of low polemic from the high priests of modern science. How much money do you need to reform the system? Let me get my checkbook....Ē

 

Whatís so obviously wrong with Grossís article? Since others are responding to Grossís criticism of their work, Iíll confine my remarks to Grossís criticism of my own work. Letís begin with Grossís criticism of the ďdesign inference,Ē which he puts in scare quotes. He cites critiques of it by Victor Stenger, Jason Rosenhouse, and Richard Wein, and then, without justification or elaboration, merely asserts that they have decisively refuted my work on this topic.

 

What Gross doesnít disclose is that I have a book titled The Design Inference, published by Cambridge University Press. It was peer-reviewed as part of a Cambridge monograph series: Cambridge Studies in Probability, Induction, and Decision Theory. In that book I lay out in full technical detail a method of design detection applicable to biology. Perhaps Gross neglected to mention this because the editorial board of that series included members of the National Academy of Sciences as well as one Nobel laureate, John Harsanyi, who shared the prize in 1994 with John Nash, the protagonist in the film A Beautiful Mind. The editors and referees of The Design Inference were in each case more qualified to judge its merits than the three individuals Gross cites. (Richard Wein, for instance, holds nothing more than a bachelorís degree in statistics).

 

Gross refers to ďa dozen point-by-point refutationsĒ of my work on the design inference. But if I have been refuted, why not cite my most formidable critic rather than amateurs like Stenger, Rosenhouse, and Wein. All the critics of my work, when pushed to cinch their critique, end up citing Stanfordís Elliott Sober, who critiques my work from a Bayesian perspective. Sober has now published four or so articles either exclusively devoted to critiquing my work or devoting substantial space to it, including a long critical review of The Design Inference for the journal Philosophy of Science as well as his 1999 presidential address to the American Philosophical Association (which was subsequently reprinted).

 

What about Soberís criticisms? I deal with them in No Free Lunch and again in The Design Revolution (which is forthcoming). In my view, Iíve answered Soberís concerns successfully and completely. But suppose you think Gross is a more credible witness than I and you donít want to take my word for it. Then consider the following remark by Paul Davies, a prolific science writer, a well regarded physicist in his own right, and no proponent of intelligent design: ďDembskiís attempt to quantify design, or provide mathematical criteria for design, is extremely useful. Iím concerned that the suspicion of a hidden agenda is going to prevent that sort of work from receiving the recognition it deserves. Strictly speaking, you see, science should be judged purely on the science and not on the scientist.Ē (Quoted in L. Witham, By Design [San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2003], p. 149.) Note that Davies made this remark when asked about Elliott Soberís criticism of my work.

 

Davies is a serious physicist and regards my work on information as important (I correspond with him regularly by email, and readers can confirm Daviesís view ofmy work for themselves). But instead of citing people of Daviesís stature and caliber, Gross refers to the ďexpertsĒ who ďhave ignored or scornedĒ my work on information, notably my work on the Law of Conservation of Information. Who are his experts? Right after referring to them, he cites an article with the following URL:

http://talkreason.org/articles/dembski_LCI.pdf. Who wrote this article? An anonymous Internet persona named ďErik.Ē I understand that Erik is a graduate student in mathematics in Sweden. Even though Erik, like Grossís other ďexperts,Ē is an amateur, I responded at length to Erik on my website (at

http://www.designinference.com/documents/2002.08.Erik_Response.htm).

 

What about the Law of Conservation of Information? Gross claims that it is a new law of nature, that Iíve introduced it, and that introducing a new law of nature is the mark of a crank science. Each of these claims is false. Certainly if the mere introduction of a new law of nature signified a crank science, then genuine scientists could never discover and introduce any new laws at all. But the more important point for this discussion is that Iím not introducing anything fundamentally new. The very phrase ďLaw of Conservation of InformationĒ is due not to me but to the biologist Peter Medawar (see his The Limits of Science, 1984). Whatís more, he used it, albeit in a restricted sense, in the same way I use it.

 

I also identify this law with a Fourth Law of Thermodynamics. But again, Iím not claiming to introduce anything fundamentally new. If Gross had read my book No Free Lunch, where I give a history of this law, he would realize that it goes back at least to the mid 1970s to some speculations by Victor Weisskopf and that more recently it has received careful attention from Stuart Kauffman (see his most recent book with Oxford titled Investigations). Kauffman and I are conversation partners. We have debated publicly at the University of New Mexico and spent several days together at a symposium in Santa Fe. He even graciously consented to do an online chat through a professional organization I helped found (the International Society for Complexity, Information, and Design (for the chat transcript, go to http://www.iscid.org/stuartkauffman-chat.php).

 

The Law of Conservation of Information or, equivalently, the Fourth Law of Thermodynamics attempts to understand a deep problem in thermodynamics and information theory. An intuitive way to think about the problem is in terms of two CDs, one with random bits and the other with the latest Microsoft Windows operating system. From the vantage of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, these CDs are indistinguishable. And yet informationally they are very different. The underlying problem here goes back to Maxwell and his famous demon, in which the Second Law of Thermodynamics could be reversed given an appropriate information source. The Law of Conservation of Information attempts to come to grips with such information sources.

 

How has the scientific community received my work? Of those who have actually read it, by and large I find scientists intrigued. I speak around the globe to science faculties (to take just one upcoming example, mathematicians at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen invited me to speak there about my work on the design inference in the spring of 2004). More significantly, given Grossís unending refrain that intelligent design is crank science, my work is favorably cited in the peer-reviewed mathematical and biological literature (for the actual references see the ID FAQ on my website: http://www.designinference.com/documents/2003.09.ID_FAQ.pdf).

 

Gross is playing a losing game if he wants to say that my work on intelligent design is not science. If he doesnít like the peer-reviewed scientific articles that currently cite my work―perhaps he thinks they donít make sufficiently extensive use of my work or they were not published with sufficiently prestigious journals or presses―let him consider that there is more in the pipeline and that the charade that methods of design detection are not scientific when applied to biology will grow increasingly implausible.

 

I want next to address Grossís reference to me as a ďtheologian and mathematician.Ē I hold a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Chicago. Iíve also done postdoctoral work in mathematics at MIT, computer science at Princeton, and physics at the University of Chicago. Besides mathematics, I hold a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Illinois at Chicago and have done postdoctoral work in that field at Northwestern University and the University of Notre Dame. My area of specialization is the philosophy of science, and Iím currently an associate research professor in the conceptual foundations of science at Baylor University. And finally, I hold an M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary.

 

Now, Iím certainly proud of my theological background and enjoy writing on theological topics, especially on what I take to be the theological implications of my work on intelligent design. But I keep my technical work on design detection separate from its theological implications. The former I publish through standard academic outlets. The latter I publish through religious outlets. Gross, however, makes sure this distinction is missed. Thus he quotes some of my most flamboyantly theological writings and suggests that these are representative of my work on intelligent design. Not so. As a public intellectual, Iím perfectly in my rights to explain what I take to be the broader implications of my work. But I always insist that the actual mathematical and scientific work must stand on its own merits. Iíll be the first to admit that intelligent design is an ambitious program whose full implications for science are not yet clear. But it needs first to be fairly discussed. Gross, in his article for Science Insights, attempts to keep that discussion from ever starting.

 

One of my friends at Oxford, a senior scholar who works in the history of physics, has watched the vituperation and storm of controversy that surrounds my work and continually counsels me to keep my polemical streak in check. Yet when I referred him to Grossís article, hereís what he wrote:

 

My goodness, Bill, this is loaded with extreme polemical language almost from the first sentence. I find it so biased that I simply cannot get beyond the first page. That the editor is proud to present this polemical babble is astonishing. If this is the best that the ďscientific establishmentĒ can do, then that establishment is culturally decadent. It confirms what I have worried about for a long time: that science today simply does not have the cultural depth, the conceptual and linguistic resources, to conduct civilized scholarly debate about its foundational commitments and assumptions. Thomas Huxley would be deeply embarrassed by this article. If you have to deal daily with this kind of low polemic, there is a real danger of being dragged down to their level. I am more sympathetic than ever with what you have to deal with.

 

Notwithstanding, I remain grateful for all of Paul Grossís efforts to unseat intelligent design and my work in particular. I want to encourage him to keep at it, especially through the NAS (provided, of course, my colleagues and I are given the opportunity, as here, to unmask his shenanigans). Indeed, Iím particularly heartened to see his forthcoming book with Barbara Forrest, tendentiously titled Creationismís Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design, to be published, no less, by Oxford University Press.

 

Through all such efforts, Gross, however much he would like to deny it, is tacitly conceding that there are multiple millions of people who find it plausible or even self-evident that the world was designed by intelligence. These multiple millions now have a voice in the academic and scientific world, effective enough that Gross and his colleagues have to spend a lot of time writing articles and even whole books attacking intelligent design (and in some cases, like Robert Pennock, they even make an academic career attacking it).

 

Grossís efforts to unseat intelligent design make clear to my natural constituency that there are still lots of dogmatic scientists out there who are unwilling to consider the claims of intelligent design dispassionately. They see Grossís misrepresentations and character assassinations as a profanation of the scientific enterprise. And they are only too happy to support its reform in the name of intelligent design. So thank you Paul Gross. And thank you Michael Shermer for clarifying, if only by counterexample, just what ďReasoned Scholarship in a Free SocietyĒ means.

 

William A. Dembski

Conceptual Foundations of Science

Baylor University