Dembski, it seems, now admits that he has been wasting everyone’s time for quite a while.
Dembski’s comment comes in a series of numbered points. Here’s the first:
(1) I’ve pretty much dispensed with the EF. It suggests that chance, necessity, and design are mutually exclusive. They are not. Straight CSI is clearer as a criterion for design detection.
For those not fluent in crankspeak, EF refers to Dembski’s Explanatory Filter. He was attempting to describe a procedure for determining whether some event or artifact can only be explained as the result of intelligent agency. The premise of the filter was that there are only three types of explanations, chance, necessity or design. Design could then be established by eliminating chance and necessity.
Even before getting to the problem of how one is meant to eliminate chance and design, critics immediately pointed out that Dembski’s naive trichotomy was unworkable. Indeed, it was one of the first criticisms raised. Dembski dug in his heels initially, so it is nice to see that he has now conceded the point.
Of course, defending the EF was one of the major goals of his book The Design Inference. Guess you can scratch that off your ID reading list.
CSI refers to Complex Specified Information. In Dembskiland, Complex just means improbable, and Specified means that the event or artifact in question matches some recognizable pattern. Since Dembski presented the EF as a tool for discerning CSI, I don’t follow the clean separation ebtween them he is trying to establish here. For the record, though, Dembski’s CSI is a nonsensical notion for a variety of reasons. For one, he was inconsistent in his writing about whether the determination of specificity came before or after the determination of complexity. For another, the sorts of probability calculations that were essential to his theory we impossible to carry out. Which brings us to his second bullet point:
(2) The challenge for determining whether a biological structure exhibits CSI is to find one that’s simple enough on which the probability calculation can be convincingly performed but complex enough so that it does indeed exhibit CSI. The example in NFL ch. 5 doesn’t fit the bill. The example from Doug Axe in ch. 7 of THE DESIGN OF LIFE (www.thedesignoflife.net) is much stronger.
That Dembski’s little flagellum calculation in his NFL book (that’s No Free Lunch, for those not down with the jargon) was not very convincing was pointed out by his critics as soon as the book was published. I seem to recall the academic journal Evolution publishing an especially witty and trenchant form of this criticism:
The text soon becomes a dazzling congeries of binomial coefficients, perturbation probabilities, and sundry mathematical notation, all in the service of a computation that may as well have been written in Klingon for all the connection it has to reality. Modeling the formation of complex structures via a three-part process of atomization, convergence, and assembly is terribly unrealistic.
So it is nice that, once again, Dembski admits he was wasting everyone’s time with this calculation. Why do I suspect, though, that if I look into the details of Mr. Axe’s example, mentioned by Dembski, that I am going the usual morass of numerology, unsupported assumptions, and bad probability?
Skipping ahead to Dembski’s final point:
(5) There’s a paper Bob Marks and I just got accepted which shows that evolutionary search can never escape the CSI problem (even if, say, the flagellum was built by a selection-variation mechanism, CSI still had to be fed in).
Once more, Dembski’s critics have been telling him for years that natural selection is a marvellous device for transmitting information from the environment into the genomes of organisms. What was allegedly novel about Dembski’s work was his claim to have shown with rigorous mathematics that the flagellum could not have been built via random variation and natural selection. It seems he his now withdrawing that claim.
Once this is understood, it seems that the CSI problem, as Dembski calls it, amounts to little more than the question of why there is something instead of nothing. Puzzling indeed, but hardly something for biologists to be worrying about.