Dembski’s Decline

While I was away, William Dembski offered up this revealing post. He describes how he met philosopher Barbara Forrest and asked her to autograph his copy of Creationism’s Trojan Horse. She signed it, “To Bill, With Thanks.” Dembski writes:

Indeed, what is she thanking me for? If ID is such a vicious evil, a more appropriate inscription might have read:

To Bill,

You malignant subverter of science, you despiser of all that is wholesome and right. May you rot in hell, if there is such a place (which I doubt).

With all good wishes,
Barbara Forrest

But she didn’t. She thanked me. Why was that? Because, at a deep level, she realizes that her professional advancement (she is now an endowed professor — she was largely unknown, like O’Leary, before entering this debate) and, indeed, her reason for having any sort of intellectual career worth talking about is that she has become a principal opponent of ID. What’s more, my contributions to ID have been seminal in that regard, giving her an adequate foil against which to devote her energies (why else does she devote three pages of the index — over 100 references — to yours truly?). To make a career attacking something, the object attacked has to be sufficiently dangerous and threatening. My colleagues and I have provided her with precisely such an object.

When I was in second grade, I had a crush on Joan Gillespie. To show my affection, I was mean to her and kept thinking up ways to be mean to her. Fortunately, I outgrew that childishness. When it comes to ID, Darwinists have yet to do so.

Deep down, Darwinists love ID. (Emphasis Added)

Several things struck me about this. First up was the sheer nastiness of that boldface remark. Forrest makes a gracious gesture, and Dembski returns the favor by impugning her professional work. An object lesson in what happens when you are polite to an ID advocate.

Next up was that business about three pages of the index being given over to Dembski’s work. I’m looking at the index of CTH right now. I find it’s printed in a two column format. The entry for “Dembski, WIlliam A.” takes up part of one column, then all of the following page, then a few lines on the third page. Gives rather a different impression than his description. If Dembski tells you it’s raining, go to the window and check.

And then there’s Dembski’s description of his own work as “seminal.” Dembski likes that word. Here he is using it again, this time in the preface to the paperback edition of No Free Lunch:

At the risk of immodesty, I want to suggest that this book remains a seminal text for the intelligent design movement.

Risk, indeed. “Seminal” is one of those words you don’t see much outside of academe. Scholars use it to refer to work that was not only important in its own right, but also introduced a whole new line of investigation in its field. For example, you might refer to The Origin of Species as Darwin’s seminal work on biological evolution.

It’s a term no serious scholar would apply to his own work, and certainly not so soon after the work’s original publication. And while we’re at it, note the affectation of referring to his own book as a “text.” That’s another academic thing. Textbooks are distinguished from run of the mill books by being things you study when you’re starting to learn a new discipline. By calling his book a “seminal text”, he is arrogating to his work the status something people should study to learn the discipline of ID, in the same way you might use a book called “Introduction to Thermdynamics” in a physics course.

And then we put this together with other things he has written lately. For example, here’s the first paragraph of his preface:

Five years have elapsed since the publication of No Free Lunch. In that time, intelligent
design (ID) has gone from a little-known and marginalized alternative to standard
evolutionary theory to a national and international phenomenon that everyone with an
interest in the biological origins debate is talking about. Gone is the former dichotomy
between creationism and evolution. Leaving aside creationism’s insistence on treating
Genesis as a scientific text and treating the detection and application of design as a
research tool for science, ID has carved out its own conceptual space and place at the
table of scientific discussion. Five years ago critics of ID regularly leveled the charge that
ID has no peer-reviewed publications in the biological literature. That charge is no longer
supportable, with pro-ID research appearing in such journals as Protein Science, Journal
of Molecular Biology, and Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington (for
details, see my expert witness report for the Dover case at

Very little of that is true, of course. ID has no place at the scientific table, and Dembski knows it. Scientists do not discuss ID at their professional conferences (with the possible exception of an occasional session treating ID as a threat to be fought). There isn’t a lab in the country where people are actually applying Dembski’s probability arguments or Behe’s irreducible complexity to their work. And the handful of papers ID folks claim as supportive of their work are all highly debatable, to put it kindly. Add to that further examples of pompous academisms, like “conceptual space”, and a clear picture of Dembski begins to emerge.

You see, it wasn’t that long ago that Dembski was earning PhD’s from prestigious institutions and having his books published by Cambridge University Press. Respectable universities were building think tanks for him to run. But that’s all in the past. Now he finds himself at a small Baptist seminary in Texas. Respectable publishers want nothing to do with his work. The ID movement has proven itself entirely unable to make good on its arrogant boasts of making actual contirbutions to scientific research, and it has been humiliated by a string of recent defeats. It is utterly stagnant.

So Dembski simply retreats into his own fantasy land. There he can act like an important person, secure in the knowledge that his small handful of sycophantic admirers will not disabuse him of the notion. He can use the language of academic respect and accomplishment while ignoring the lack of substance behind that language. And when he squints just right and tilts his head just so he can probably make himself believe that it’s real. For just a little while anyway.

But most of the time he knows it isn’t real. He knows that real scientists want nothing to do with him or his addle-brained, simplistic, laughably wrong mathemtaical arguments. And that makes him bitter. It’s standard crank stuff; nothing academics haven’t been dealing with for centuries. Sad, but familiar.

I’m getting weepy. Better call it a night.


  1. #1 David D.G.
    August 17, 2006

    Good grief, Dembski comes across as nothing more than an incredibly narcissistic megalomaniac — and a profoundly rude and mean-spirited one at that. What a waste, for a person to be like that, whatever his personal opinions about science may be.

    ~David D.G.

  2. #2 John Pieret
    August 17, 2006

    The truly precious part of this is, after having said that vicious thing about Forrest, he cluessly continues:

    When I was in second grade, I had a crush on Joan Gillespie. To show my affection, I was mean to her and kept thinking up ways to be mean to her. Fortunately, I outgrew that childishness. When it comes to ID, Darwinists have yet to do so.

    So, in addition to an utter lack of introspection (or old fashioned dishonesty, take your pick), Bill has a serious case of projection. But it gets worse.

    Dembski’s whole point depends on Forrest’s autograph being specifically directed at him. But over at Ed Brayton’s blog, Dispatches from the Culture Wars, Mike Hopkins revealed he had a copy of the book signed by Forrest some time before Bill’s. Ed also turned up an autographed copy. Both were signed in almost identical fashion. Thus, what Forrest inscribed in Dembski’s copy was just a repetitive phrase she used for autographing books. Ed’s comment, “I guess Dembski isn’t so good at discerning purpose and teleology as he pretends, eh?” is spot on.

    As I said at the time, it’s a good thing Bill is back in Texas, where they can accommodate his head.

  3. #3 DragonScholar
    August 17, 2006

    Actually, I’d say you hit it on David – he’s narcissistic. In fact, most of his crowd seem to be the same way – note how they heap praise on each other, title themselves “Darwin’s Nemesis,” etc.

    The ID movement leaders (and members) seem to be living in a fictional world of their own perfection. They remind me of writers that create what are known as Mary Sues/Gary Stus – characters that are pure ego-trips, authors pets, perfect in every way (unless imperfection may be cool), and at times way to close to being an imitation of the author.

    Dembski and company have built up this little fictional universe where they’re superheroes for science, the cause of all that is good, enemies of the unjust, etc. All they need is capes and a secret base. But it’s all fiction.

  4. #4 Timcol
    August 17, 2006

    I’ve been reading Dembski’s “blog” for a while now and I what I have been completely struck with is the sheer lack of content about anything actually related to ID. Just take a typical month — you will find the majority of the blog entries are just anti-evolution polemics (some of them very childish at that). The rest are divided between ‘pubjacking’, where Dembski finds some obscure reference to ‘intelligence’ and ‘design’ somewhere on the Internet and triumphantly points to this as evidence that ID is entering the mainstream. I almost wonder if Dembski spends a disproportionate amount of his time surfing the net desparately trying to find some mention of ID, no matter how obscure. The rest are mostly items are about news of the ID movement.

    But what is strikingly missing is actually content about new ideas, concepts or research on ID itself. I’ve gone back 3-4 months and haven’t found a single thing (compare this of course to Panda’s Thumb or indeed this blog where you will frequently find blog entries on new discoveries or findings related to evolution).

    And of course I say “blog” because unlike just about any other blog out there, where comments are usually freely allowed, we all know that at UD censorship is frequently practiced. In fact it’s quite fascinating to look at the comments and go back a day or so later and you will find some other disappeared. Just the other day, Dembski posted a blog entry about the fact that the book ‘Debating Design: From Darwin to DNA’ was still doing well in academic circles. Well, somebody posted a comment that and asked Dembski if he knew for sure whether it was academics that were buying it or was it the general publicgeneral public. This obviously didn’t go down with the Great Seminal Dembski (no doubt because Dembski had made the story up), so within a few hours this post disappeared.

    The other thing that is very notable about Dembski, unlike real scientists, is that he never, never uses language such as “we don’t know yet for sure” or “we will still need to do more research to confirm this”. Rather Dembski is quite convinced that within 10 years (and I’ve heard him speak to this) Evolutionary biology as we know it will be replaced by ID. The scary thing is that I think he actually believes it – which is certainly an insight into his own psyche and also bolsters the comments below that he is perhaps narcissitic (and I mean this in the clinical sense…)

  5. #5 Dave M
    August 17, 2006

    Jason, I think that when Dembski calls his book a “seminal text,” he doesn’t mean to imply that it’s a textbook. It’s just another “pompous academism,” as you call it (albeit one usually applied to books, I mean texts, by the likes of, I don’t know, Frederic Jameson). Interesting to see Dembski using pomospeak. As a pompous academic myself, I find this usage perfectly idiomatic (applying it to No Free Lunch, on the other hand … ).

    Timcol, good point (the last one).

  6. #6 Ingrid
    August 17, 2006

    Ugh. If I wrote a book I would thank anyone who owned a copy of it, regardless of their politics. Why? Because it would indicate that I would be receiving a share of the proceeds from the book’s sale. I get money from the sale of my book no matter what your opinion of it happens to be. Dembski is an idiot for not recognizing this basic fact. He also appears to be completely devoid of any humor.

  7. #7 mark
    August 17, 2006

    Let’s face, wMAD apparently believes no one can have a career worth anything without having been touched by the Isaac Newton of Information Science. As for his texts, they’re just dripping with seminal fluid.

  8. #8 Pi Guy
    August 17, 2006

    I check UD several times a week and have come to the same conclusion as Timcol: vitriolistic “Darwinist” bashing. And I’m not completely convinced that Billy Boy actually believes it but he knows that it’s making him some good coin so he can’t ever admit it if he doesn’t. I doubt the Hubbard really believed any Scientology but he kept rolling because people were throwing a bunch of money at him to fill their empty lives.

    And I hate the term Darwinist. No one is ever referred to as a Clausiusist or a Newtonist just because they believe entropy or universal gravitation exists. I think that it’s just easier for them to say, “This guy had a dumb idea and you’re dumb if you buy into it” rather than actually attempting to logically justify their concern over a gap with some counter-evidence. Maybe that’s because there is none…

  9. #9 DragonScholar
    August 17, 2006

    Regarding Uncommon descent, it seems that, frankly,it’s a Talking Point Generation Station. People post their latest take on the same tired and disproven ideas, and people rush off and talk about them – I’ve seen UD falsehoods end up at other websites in short order. It’s a big echo chamber where you don’t get questioned.

  10. #10 Ginger Yellow
    August 17, 2006

    I particularly like the way he refers people to his “expert witness report for the Dover case”. You know, the one for which he pulled out of the case rather than have it cross examined.

  11. #11 Dave M
    August 17, 2006

    Oh, and “at a deep level” is priceless.

  12. #12 Timcol
    August 17, 2006

    It’s also fascinating to see what passes for ‘humor’ with Dembski. Try these for example: (This one is embarrasingly childish and puerile) (this one barely makes sense)

    Not only are these rather bizarre, but they are not particularly funny. He obviously thinks he is funny but I think he lacks the socialization skills to discern that they are neither funny nor witty (even sophomoric humor is usually better than this).

    I think it’s another line of evidence that suggests that Dembski really hasn’t grown out of that awkward teenage-boy stage of development..

  13. #13 Jon Fleming
    August 18, 2006

    As is made clear in the comments at Behold the Glory of Bill Dembski, that inscription is what Forest writes on all autographed copies of her book.

  14. #14 Joe
    August 18, 2006

    Maybe Dembski read what Barbara Forrest wrote about his hypocrisy:
    She observes that he derided scientists for not having the courage to participate in the hearings in Kansas in May 2005. Then, he pulled out of the Dover trial at te last minute.

  15. #15 Peter Ridsdale
    August 20, 2006

    Is Dembski’s work seminal in the sense that it is the result of mental masturbation – giving it’s author intense pleasure but appearing ridiculous to the hapless onlooker? Seeming at first like a good idea but ultimately cold, sticky and leaving a nasty stain?

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