Sunday, September 25, 2005

The William Paley of Young Earth Creationism

In recent years, William Dembski has risen in prominence within the intelligent design creationism movement. Dembski and his supporters have tried hard to persuade a largely oblivious scientific community that his work is nothing short of revolutionary. For example, six years ago the philosopher Robert Koons declared that "William Dembski is the Isaac Newton of information theory, [...] one of the most important thinkers of our time". So, is Dembski to information theory, what Newton was to physics and mathematics? Is he even what Newton's arch-enemy Leibniz was to algorithmic information theory? Are his ideas on the design inferrence, complex specified information, and the No Free Lunch theorems to Darwin's theory of natural selection, what Einstein's General Theory of Relativity was to Newton's theory of gravitation? Frankly, I doubt it.

One problem is that he has published almost no peer-reviewed, primary research papers, the standard way to contribute to the scientific process since... well, around Newton's time. A more serious problem is that the few substantive arguments he has advanced have been criticized repeatedly, and he has been inept in his responses (I say this as someone who is genuinely interested in some of the questions he raises) -- typically he will challenge the scientific credentials or the character of his critics, while avoiding or misrepresenting many of the serious questions they raise. (For example, see his exchange with Thomas Schneider.)

Dembski can also write some remarkably stupid (telling?) things. Pharyngula and Panda's Thumb have picked up a steady stream of these. Here's one I have just read in Philosophy of Biology on the relative merits of young earth creationism and evolutionary biology:
"[...] young earth creationism is at worst off by a few orders of magnitude in misestimating the age of the earth. On the other hand, Darwinism, in ascribing powers of intelligence to blind material forces, is off by infinite orders of magnitude."
This is particularly interesting coming from a mathematician!

Perhaps this was the aspect of Dembski's output that Koons had in mind when he drew the parallel with Newton -- he was thinking of Newton the alchemist or Biblical interpreter, not Newton the physicist or mathematician.