Pharyngula

A martyr to his own hubris and incompetence

Uncommon Descent must have noticed ERV’s comment that no one reads their site, because now they seem to be frantically chumming the waters with bizarre bait. I’ll bite; like a shark, I’m a mindless eating machine, exquisitely sensitive to the thrashing of victims and the scent of blood. And it makes for great street theater!

O’Leary has just put up a bizarre account of Dembski’s dismissal from the Baylor engineering department. It is, of course, entirely one-sided and reflects only Dembski’s perception of his treatment, but even that is revealing.

Dembski had a prior appointment at Baylor — there was an attempt to establish a center, the Polanyi Center, for studying Intelligent Design creationism. That center got blown away by appalled faculty and Dembski’s own political arrogance.

I had worked at Baylor from 1999-2005 as Associate Research Professor in the Conceptual Foundations of Science. During that time my work on intelligent design was continually vilified at Baylor and I personally was ostracized from much of the Baylor community. Nonetheless, during that time I always found the engineering faculty congenial, who invited me regularly to give special lectures on intelligent design to their students.

Dembski got a new job at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, but he continued to try and creep back into Baylor. He got a peculiar post-doctoral appointment with Robert Marks of the School of Engineering and Computer Science (which is very strange: a post-doc with a full-time appointment at another university? Anyone who has ever been a post-doc knows that you are supposed to be the full-time lackey of your PI!). I guess those congenial engineers were cutting him a lot of slack.

But not so fast!

Dean [of the School of Engineering and Computer Science] Kelley informed us that there were concerns with my being again on campus (I had been on faculty at Baylor from 1999 to 2005) and that I might need to be let go “for the good of the School of Engineering and Computer Science.”

I guess not everyone in engineering liked him.

Then comes the tragic final denouement. Dembski is … expelled.

(10) Later on Friday (12.08.06) I received an email from Dean Kelley indicating that he needed to talk to me about clearing my desk and returning my keys. I asked him to send me a formal letter to indicate when my appointment officially ends and the reasons for its ending — I received such a letter as an email Monday, 12.11.06, stating that I had been terminated Friday 12.08.06 but giving no reasons for my termination.

(11) On Saturday (12.09.06), prior to any official notification that my position with Baylor was over, my Baylor ID card no longer worked to take my family to the cafeteria. Also, on that day, my Baylor email address (William_Dembski@baylor.edu), which had worked since 1999 (it had never zeroed out even in my year-long absence from Baylor since June of 2005) now yielded the following response to people who attempted to send email to it: “Recipient address rejected: Account Disabled.” I had been erased.

There are at least two readings of this sad sad story.

One is that favored by the ID mob, and is probably the one that will get pushed by their side most heavily: it is the martyrdom of St Dembski. It feeds their persecution complex to believe that their righteous hero was being persecuted. He could no longer feed his starving, helpless family at the university cafeteria! (I want to know—is the Baylor cafeteria that good? Most places I’ve been, getting locked out of the campus cafeteria is doing you a favor.) His email address was disconnected! O Woe! There is a teeny grain of truth to this story, though: I’m also a little troubled by the fact that the administration stepped in to dismiss a PI’s grant and cut the knees out from under a post-doc, even if the terms of the position are awfully suspicious.

The other reading, though, which is apparent even in Dembski’s own account, is one of an antagonistic, uncollegial fellow trying to ride the coattails of Baylor’s reputation, and refusing to accept the fact that he was no longer an associate of the university. If Baylor were a girl, everyone would be squirming uncomfortably and yelling, “Billy, stop being so creepy! She doesn’t love you! Stop stalking her!” and urging the poor sap to move on. He’s got a job at a seminary: work it. If that job isn’t satisfactory, apply for others. Of course, the stench of his reputation precedes him, he won’t have much in the way of glowing recommendations from his former colleagues, and he has just widely advertised the fact that his peers at his last job detested him and that he’s actively short-changing his investment in his current job. Even if I weren’t vehemently opposed to the ideological baggage he’s flaunting everywhere, I wouldn’t hire him: he sounds like a very annoying and disruptive fellow.

But of course, that’s exactly what they want. Dembski is going to milk his self-proclaimed crucifixion for everything it’s worth. His side will regard him as a self-sacrificing hero, our side will see him as a pathetic loser, and no advances in ID creationism, if any were to be made, will occur … except in the PR, framing, and spin side of the debate.

Comments

  1. #1 brent
    September 4, 2007

    But of course, that’s exactly what they want. Dembski is going to milk his self-proclaimed crucifixion for everything it’s worth.

    It certainly doesn’t seem to be worth much. I think that cow is pretty much milked out.

  2. #2 Bob O'H
    September 4, 2007

    “Hang ‘im”
    “We can’t”
    “You’re right. He hasn’t got a neck”

    Why does Milligan seem so appropriate for the antics at UD?

    Bob

  3. #3 CDoF/MoS
    September 4, 2007

    As Chief Defender of the Faith and Minister of Science, I hereby condemn St Dembski as a Scientific Heretic. As someone that has committed Scientific Heresy, he is to be cast into outer darkness (or at least to a !@$%@$%@#$% seminary where he will follow the party line).

    St Dembski–life is tough. It’s tougher when you’re stupid.

  4. #4 Jsn
    September 4, 2007

    This restores my faith in Baylor University. I was certain that the Southern Baptist Poohbahs would pressure the science department into promoting ID.
    It’s also wonderful to note that Southern Methodist University’s science faculty has been fighting the “conservative think tank” agenda that will come when Shrub gets hisself a libarry at SMU. They won’t win, but the notoriety has exposed the schism between science and “faith” at a Faith-based institution.
    Perhaps Texas may not be doomed after all.

  5. #5 Mrs Tilton
    September 4, 2007

    One thing puzzles me in all this. I know very little about Baylor. But SFAIK this university, while not exactly a backwoods “bible college”, is affiliated with the Southern Baptists and avowedly fundamentalist. As such I’d have thought somebody like Dembski should have had no trouble finding and keeping an academic berth there. (Surely somebody like Ahmanson could have been found to provide funding, if that was the problem?)

    Not to say that Baylor’s biology department are all YECs or what have you; they probably aren’t, and I can see why they’d resent Dembski (possibly even more so if they are religious than if they aren’t). But I don’t think he was working under their aegis. Is it not possible that Dembski’s personality, as much as or even more than his ideology, is what cost him his post?

    And Baylor’s conservative religious ethos brings me to another puzzling point: one sees why Dembski would like to be portrayed as a “Christian martyr”. But surely it’s a little odd, and not very convincing, to squeeze Baylor into a Roman centurion costume? (Or godless evolutionist costume, for that matter.)

  6. #6 Rev. BigDumbChimp
    September 4, 2007

    Dembski reminds me of some of the endusers I deal with day to day.

    No matter what happens to their computer it’s never their fault. Ignoring the fact they don’t actually know what they are doing and that they like to talk like they do (which always further cements the fact that they are talking out of their ass) they always tell me that it’s something wrong with our server (which server?) the network, the application the printer, the IT department, etc.

    When in fact it is of course that they have no clue what they are doing and by pretending to actually know they muck up the works even worse.

  7. #7 MartinC
    September 4, 2007

    He could always get revenge by making an animated cartoon of his critics – with obligatory fart noises.

  8. #8 MikeM
    September 4, 2007

    He deserved it.

    I just have to think a lot of people at Baylor are walking around with smiles today.

    Took his family to the cafeteria… Sheesh. Was that Billy’s idea of a classy night out?

  9. #9 The Barefoot Bum
    September 4, 2007

    This little drama is also a reason why I don’t think appeasing the religious will ever work. The religious right is very explicit about their active enmity to science: No matter what happens, Dembski and his ilk are going to do whatever it takes to provoke a confrontation and then scream persecution.

    If Baylor had caved on his appointment, I strongly suspect Dembski would have kept pushing until either Baylor reacted or every professor had to swear the DI oath of Biblical Authority.

  10. #10 Watt de Fawke
    September 4, 2007

    I guess some people just can’t take a hint.

  11. #11 Reginald Selkirk
    September 4, 2007

    Took his family to the cafeteria… Sheesh. Was that Billy’s idea of a classy night out?

    Have you been to Waco?

  12. #12 MartinC
    September 4, 2007

    Its cheaper for Baylor doing it this way. The alternative was to move to New England when Bill wasn’t looking, change its name and then hope he didn’t hire a good private investigator to track it down.

  13. #13 Reginald Selkirk
    September 4, 2007

    I know very little about Baylor. But SFAIK this university, while not exactly a backwoods “bible college”, is affiliated with the Southern Baptists and avowedly fundamentalist.

    Here’s Baylor’s mission statement

    Baylor is founded on the belief that God’s nature is made known through both revealed and discovered truth. Thus, the University derives its understanding of God, humanity, and nature from many sources: the person and work of Jesus Christ, the biblical record, and Christian history and tradition, as well as scholarly and artistic endeavors…

    Religious yes, Fundamentalist, no. Nothing in there about Biblical innerancy, and they explicitly acknowledge extra-biblical sources of knowledge.

  14. #14 Stephen Occam
    September 4, 2007

    Mrs Tilton said:
    …Or godless evolutionist costume, for that matter.

    Alright! Now I know what I’m wearing to the Halloween party. I wonder if I still have the number for that costume shop on main….

  15. #15 Rick Schauer
    September 4, 2007

    “I guess some people just can’t take a hint.”

    …says it all!

  16. #16 Ginger Yellow
    September 4, 2007

    The fact that this “persecution” is coming from Baylor is going to make it hard for them to claim that ID is being suppressed by an atheistic conspiracy. Maybe it’s a conspiracy of people who aren’t off the scale insane.

  17. #17 George Cauldron
    September 4, 2007

    The fact that this “persecution” is coming from Baylor is going to make it hard for them to claim that ID is being suppressed by an atheistic conspiracy.

    Wrong.

    Read the comments about this at UD. They’re all talking about how a Baptist college isn’t supposed to do things like this, and how this proves that the Baylor administration obviously aren’t real Christians. Problem solved.

    Never doubt the ability of IDC’s base to avoid inconvenient reality.

  18. #18 Keanus
    September 4, 2007

    Baylor has long tried to shake off the image of “bible college” that is has/had. Once it was a bible college, but for many years it’s sought to be true college of scholars, albeit Christian. I suspect that many, many Christians on the faculty, within biology and without, looked with contempt and disdain on Dembski’s lack of academic achievement–yes, Bill, you do have to produce creditable work to earn tenure–in his post doc period. And took offense at his puerile antics on-line and off, antics which can only accrue to Dembski’s discredit and that of any institution with which he’s affiliated. The DI acolytes will, of course, morph the circumstances into something resembling nothing in reality, but then fantasy is their fortÚ.

  19. #19 oxytocin
    September 4, 2007

    I just finished reading “Why Darwin Matters” by Michael Shermer. What really shocked me about the book was that Shermer called Dembski a very kind and polite fellow and he considers him a friend. This is in stark contrast to everything else I’ve read about it. Curious.

  20. #20 Jsn
    September 4, 2007

    For those of you unfamiliar with Baylor on the Brazos, it is a fairly large private University in Waco, Texas. It houses a Southern Baptist theological seminary, yet Baylor is a top rated medical school with several affiliated hospitals; Baylor Dallas Hospital is excellent. B.U. is also a top Law school, go figure.

  21. #21 TheBrummell
    September 4, 2007

    The whole take-his-family-to-cafeteria thing smacks of a setup. I’m guessing he knew a priori that his access to the cafeteria had been cancelled, and brought his family along just so he could talk about getting rejected in front of his wife and children. Did he tell them in the car on the way to campus that this was just a publicity formality, and that they were planning to go to some other (public) restaurant anyways?

  22. #22 Cody
    September 4, 2007

    Jsn, the Baylor College of Medicine split from Baylor University in 1969. (Baylor president Lilley is on the med school’s board of trustees, however.)

    Also, Baylor is not affiliated with the Souther Baptist Convention, but with the Baptist General Convention, and even then only to a loose extent. Baylor actually rewrote its charter in 1991 to prevent a fundamentalist takeover.

    Regarding the cafeterias, I’ve avoided them since my freshman year, a decision which brings me joy daily. And as for the certain gentleman’s slander against the fine culinary establishments in the great city of Waco, I’ll have you know that we not only possess a Chick-a-fil-a, but a Whataburger as well!

  23. #23 HP
    September 4, 2007

    I agree with Mrs. Tilton. I imagine that the reason Baylor let him go is at least 60% “insufferable jerk who nobody likes” and at most only 40% “intellectual fraud.”

    To clarify, I don’t mean to impune Baylor’s reputation, about which I know nothing in particular, but in my experiences caroming off the boundaries of academia, if find that when a faculty member is intellectually iffy, personality becomes the deciding factor.

  24. #24 Ed Darrell
    September 4, 2007

    Have you been to Waco?

    Yes, and to Lubbock, too. And Sherman, and Greenville, and Corpus Christi, Houston, Georgetown, Austin and Plano. All of those places have something better than the college cafeteria.

    On I-35, there’s a Starbucks next door to a Quiznos, a combination that beats most college cafeterias (especially on those late night drives back from Austin after defending evolution and biology textbooks).

    And for the really adventurous, Hewitt is about five miles south . . . but of course, that’s fiction.

  25. #25 The Commissar
    September 4, 2007

    Any good science or evo news these days?

  26. #26 Yankee Godless Liberal
    September 4, 2007

    How annoying do you need to be when a university decides to return grant money in order to get rid of you? And is he the only person in the planet that doesn’t know that you can’t be a postdoc with full employment at another institution?

  27. #27 Reginald Selkirk
    September 4, 2007

    What really shocked me about the book was that Shermer called Dembski a very kind and polite fellow and he considers him a friend.

    But then, Shermer is not infallible. He has written about subjecting hydrogen to nuclear fission (rather than fusion). (June 2007 Scientific American)

  28. #28 Hank Fox
    September 4, 2007

    If Baylor were a girl, everyone would be squirming uncomfortably and yelling, “Billy, stop being so creepy! She doesn’t love you! Stop stalking her!”

    Whoo! Good one. Seems like the perfect illustration of what’s really going on here.

  29. #29 Torbj÷rn Larsson, OM
    September 4, 2007

    With a personality like Demsbki’s, who needs enemies?

  30. #30 Torbj÷rn Larsson, OM
    September 4, 2007

    With a personality like Demsbki’s, who needs enemies?

  31. #31 Torbj÷rn Larsson, OM
    September 4, 2007

    D’oh! With a spelling like “Dembski”, who needs enemies?

  32. #32 Torbj÷rn Larsson, OM
    September 4, 2007

    D’oh! With a spelling like “Dembski”, who needs enemies?

  33. #33 Sastra
    September 4, 2007

    Years back, when the problems with the Polanyi Center at Baylor University first emerged, I read a news story and saved a quote from one of its faculty:

    “I really don’t want someone to say, as Dembski does, that he can prove the existence of God using statistical formulas. The problem with that is that if you disprove his argument, you prove there’s no God.”(L. Barker)

    Religious they may be, but at least some of them seem to recognize the problem with rejecting the artificial NOMA distinction, and respectfully trying to approach the existence of God as a science hypothesis. There’s a certain risk. Better to keep it in your heart as a special kind of Faith “fact.”

  34. #34 Blake Stacey
    September 4, 2007

    Reginald Selkirk (#27):

    But then, Shermer is not infallible. He has written about subjecting hydrogen to nuclear fission (rather than fusion).

    In that same Scientific American piece, Shermer spoke about “positive” and “negative” magnets, which while not entirely incorrect is definitely nonstandard and quite likely to be confusing. My summary is here. Hector Avalos has also criticized Shermer’s Science of Good and Evil for slipshod history; see Fighting Words (2005).

  35. #35 wildcardjack
    September 4, 2007

    As someone who has been fired a bunch of times, I gotta say that getting an email that is about “clearing my desk and returning my keys” is the most passive-aggressive move available.

    I’m surprised that the Dean would be such a wimp. But then again, I don’t know what it’s like to fire in academic circles. But it was a great feeling in tech support, when you got to take a tech god and demote him back to mortal.

  36. #36 jimmiraybob
    September 4, 2007

    Just out of curiosity, and I’m really not trying to be snarky here, what does it take to establish an information theory lab? I noticed this from the article:

    I was given a small windowless office in the engineering building (Rogers 305A), which I planned to use once or twice a week. I had no teaching duties — this was strictly a research position. Also, I had access to the Baylor library and online journals.

  37. #37 Micah
    September 4, 2007

    I wonder if Dembski’s family is ever embarrassed by reading this kind of crap – I like to imagine his daughter (although I have no idea how old she is) rolling her eyes and going “Dad, you’re just making yourself look worse again.”

  38. #38 Sili
    September 4, 2007

    Micah,

    It’s my distinct impression that most teenage girls are liable to say that about their fathers no matter how silly or not they are.

    Our esteemed host might want to share an opinion on this matter with us.

  39. #39 Bob O'H
    September 4, 2007

    Took his family to the cafeteria… Sheesh. Was that Billy’s idea of a classy night out?

    Does Dembski still own his own burger place?

    Bob

  40. #40 Tom Hall
    September 4, 2007

    Being a cruel sod, thats one of the funniest stories I`ve heard for a long time. Refused access to the cafeteria with his family, how will he live that down!

  41. #41 Micah
    September 4, 2007

    Tom: It helps if you hum Schadenfreude (the Avenue Q song) while you read it.

    Sili: Yes, that’s very true, although it seems that (superficially, at least) Skatje is not prone to excessive mockery of her father. So, PZ (or Skatje) – is this true, or does she still make fun of you all the time?

  42. #42 Sili
    September 4, 2007

    OK, having now followed the NCSE link and read the article about Dumbski’s dismissal, I have to ask, is this guy for real?

    He has to be out inside man, doesn’t he? I mean, we couldn’t make the IDiots look that stupid if we tried to.

    If I were in any way associated with that movement — which I’m not; I’m not aware that we’ve graduated beyond a few struggling anti-abortionists in this country — I’d come out and admit that we’d been hoodwinked by the evilutionists and nourished a serpent at our bosom.

    That’d be so much less damaging to their cause than continuing to back him.

  43. #43 fardels bear
    September 4, 2007

    Being kicked out of the Baylor school cafeteria reminds of Robert Preston’s line in VICTOR/VICTORIA. After his act causes a riot, the nightclub owner throws him out of the place to which he responds, “Quit making it sound like such a threat. Getting kicked out of this place is significantly better than being kicked out of a leper colony.”

  44. #44 No More Mr. Nice Guy!
    September 4, 2007

    Needless to say I don’t condone this sort of malicious harassment of William Dembski:

    http://venomouspenguin.com/wdph.jpg

  45. #45 John Pieret
    September 4, 2007

    Nonetheless, during that time I always found the engineering faculty congenial, who invited me regularly to give special lectures on intelligent design to their students.

    Somebody has to say it:

    Salem Hypothesis …

  46. #46 Reinis
    September 4, 2007

    Salem hypothesis in Wikipedia.

  47. #47 Bunjo
    September 4, 2007

    I only hope that Robert J Marks II does not get involuntary martrydom thrust upon him by the DI.

  48. #48 David Marjanovi?
    September 4, 2007

    I want to know–is the Baylor cafeteria that good? Most places I’ve been, getting locked out of the campus cafeteria is doing you a favor.

    Harr harr. Come to the cafeteria of Paris 6 and/or 7 (same campus, confusing…). The French know how to eat! B-)

  49. #49 David Marjanovi?
    September 4, 2007

    I want to know–is the Baylor cafeteria that good? Most places I’ve been, getting locked out of the campus cafeteria is doing you a favor.

    Harr harr. Come to the cafeteria of Paris 6 and/or 7 (same campus, confusing…). The French know how to eat! B-)

  50. #50 Calladus
    September 4, 2007

    I heard that if you bury a small statue of Saint Dembski in your backyard that your house won’t sell any faster, but you’ll feel better about it.

    I wonder where he’d fit in with the other Catholic saints? There are already four saints for Lost Causes.

  51. #51 Bobby
    September 4, 2007

    I’m also a little troubled by the fact that the administration stepped in to dismiss a PI’s grant and cut the knees out from under a post-doc, even if the terms of the position are awfully suspicious.

    Given the ID movement’s track record on giving a straight acount of events, I’ll withhold any troubledness until we’ve heard the other side of the story.

  52. #52 Bobby
    September 4, 2007

    Just out of curiosity, and I’m really not trying to be snarky here, what does it take to establish an information theory lab? I noticed this from the article:

    I was given a small windowless office in the engineering building (Rogers 305A), which I planned to use once or twice a week.

    It certainly doesn’t require a window. He’s obvously playing things up for his audience.

  53. #53 Bobby
    September 4, 2007

    That’d be so much less damaging to their cause than continuing to back him.

    Creationists undoubtedly find him more valuable as a martyr than as a scientist in a well-appointed research lab that doesn’t do any research.

  54. #54 Bobby
    September 4, 2007

    Oh great. Not only do we have a god of the gaps but a god of the loopholes.

    IMO much of Genesis is best understood as a collection of aetiological myths, just as we find in the myths of a myriad other nations. Thus the original “point” of the story probably wasn’ about the theology of the promise, but just a folk explanation for why we have a rainbow. (Re-read the first few chapters with aetiology in mind, and you’ll probably see everything quite differently than before.)

  55. #55 Bobby
    September 4, 2007

    “I have to go call and ask someone!”

    And that answered just how She settled internal contradictions. By seeking pat answers from superiors.

    That is certainly the key to understanding the fundamentalist mentality (and perhaps all religious mentalities).

    It also explains their strange view of us as Darwinists — they literally think we’re followers of Darwin in the same sense that they are followers of whatever cult leader they have fastened upon — and their naive notion that establishing something disreputable about Darwin or claiming that he had a deathbed conversion would make the slightest difference to what we teachin Bio 101.

    It also explains why creationist misrepresentations still stand even decades after being refuted. Forget the evidence — let’s see what Ken Hamm says about it!

  56. #56 Bobby
    September 4, 2007

    Ooops — I’ve been posting replies to the wrong thread.

  57. #57 Andrew
    September 4, 2007

    Baylor: Baptist in name but not in practice… At least the creationists will never get anywhere in higher education.

  58. #58 Marion Delgado
    September 5, 2007

    On my blog fascist oar I debunked “Kicking the Sacred Cow” by science fiction/”fact” author James Hogan, which starts out by straightforwardly declaring that anything not engineering is nonsense (before going on to promote HIV denial, General Relativity denial(!), climate change denial, Velikovsky, and ID). It’s like a genial version of the Politically Incorrect Guide to Science.

    I mentioned on Real Climate how often engineers are the “scientists” who deny global warming (really often, followed not that closely by some sort of chemist) and was, rightly, censored (by Gavin, I think) because I was dragging in the off-topic physics/engineering war (I studied physics both undergrad and grad – but then again I took a couple engineering courses both undergrad and grad too :) ). And indeed, you don’t want to get that going.

    And of course, what they do nowadays is pretend economics is a science – or have someone like “Dr.” Ben Wattenberg do something (honorary doctorate – not kidding – from Hobart Business college – same place he got a genuine bachelor’s and masters in business administration). Which makes us long for the engineers.

    Still, despite its many merits, the truth is, engineering virtually never has to settle a complex scientific issue, unlike climate science or biology or theoretical physics. I would almost give the nod to economics there, if American economics weren’t a market fundamentalist, politicized nightmare. But I would much rather talk about evolution with a well-grounded-in-the-math economist than, say, a mechanical engineer. Engineering is usually not a primary science. ME << Mechanics, Fluid Dynamics, etc. etc. EE << E&M, etc.

  59. #59 Ray
    September 5, 2007

    One would think that receiving an e-mail telling you to clean out your desk and turn in you keys would be sufficiently “formal” notification that you were not welcome anymore. Something he obviously knew before going to the cafeteria, so that part was played out for the martyr drama. What a boob.

    Cheers,
    Ray

  60. #60 Smokey
    September 5, 2007

    Wildcardjack: “I’m surprised that the Dean would be such a wimp. But then again, I don’t know what it’s like to fire in academic circles.”

    Firing in academic circles is pure Kabuki. I have a friend who was fired as a department chair and the dean, following academic protocol, announced that he had resigned. He then held a department meeting and said, “I didn’t resign, I was f**king fired.” It made the dean look pretty damn wimpy.

  61. #61 Keith Douglas
    September 8, 2007

    jimmiraybob: Can’t be that much – stack of paper, a computer setup, subscription to some journals. Colleagues to talk shop with always help too.

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