Dembski on Templeton and ID Research

In the wake of yesterday's NY Times article that included the Templeton Foundation saying that when they demanded that ID advocates produce actual research that could confirm ID and offered to fund that, they didn't come up with any, William Dembski responded with this post on his blog. He makes the following claim:

I know for a fact that Discovery Institute tried to interest the Templeton Foundation in funding fundamental research on ID that would be publishable in places like PNAS and Journal of Molecular Biology (research that got funded without Templeton support and now has been published in these journals), and the Templeton Foundation cut off discussion before a proposal was even on the table.

Needless to say, this caused many of us to wonder what research he was referring to that allegedly supported ID and was published without Templeton's help. In a comment on that thread asking that very question, Dembski said that he was referring to the work of Douglas Axe. They've been beating this drum for years and making outlandish claims about the meaning of his work that simply do not stand up to scrutiny. In particular, Dembski has continually exaggerated Axe's work on perturbation in enzymes far beyond what it says, to the point of claiming it means the opposite of what it really means. Matt Inlay documented this distortion very well in this article from the Panda's Thumb. Here's Dembski's claim about Axe's work on perturbation:

But there is now mounting evidence of biological systems for which any slight modification does not merely destroy the system's existing function, but also destroys the possibility of any function of the system whatsoever (Axe, 2000). For such systems, neither direct nor indirect Darwinian pathways could account for them. In that case we would be dealing with an in-principle argument showing not merely that no known material mechanism is capable of accounting for the system but also that any unknown material mechanism is incapable of accounting for it as well.

That is one stunning bit of hyperbole, folks. Let's look at what the Axe (2000) paper actually found:

In the article, Axe reports the results of a series of mutagenesis experiments, focusing primarily on the TEM-1 gene, a bacterial beta-lactamase that confers resistance to the antibiotics penicillin and ampicillin. Axe made conservative amino acid substitutions to residues on the exterior of this protein. Conservative substitutions are ones that exchange an amino acid for another with the same basic shape and charge (e.g. leucine to isoleucine, arginine to lysine). Additionally, because those residues are outside of the active site, they are not considered to have an effect on the activity of a protein. Therefore, evolutionary theory would predict that those residues could switch to other similar amino acids via neutral evolution. Axe tested this prediction by making an increasing number of conservative substitutions to see how many the protein could tolerate while still retaining function. He made four groups of substitutions (blaM, blaY, blaG, and blaB), with 10 substitutions in each group. Here are the results, in his own words:

"The single-group substitutions in blaM, blaY, and blaG affect function only mildly, yet these substitutions result in >99% inactivation when combined."

So contrary to Dembski's claim that "any slight modification" would "destroy the system's existing function" and even "the possibility of any function of the system whatsoever", Axe's paper actually found that you could make groups of 10 changes at a time in the amino acid sequences without significantly changing the function of the protein, you could make up to 30 changes at a time while retaining slight function of the protein, you had to make 40 changes at a time in order to destroy function entirely.

And where in the world he gets the notion that the protein would then be useless for any function, I have no idea (Axe didn't test that idea at all in his paper, nor did he even hypothesize about it). Indeed, the fact that this particular enzyme is one that confers resistance to antibiotics strongly suggests that it was itself coopted from another function through mutation, as that is generally how bacteria develop resistance, through the mutation and selection of a single protein that blocks the function of the antibiotic.

The absolute most one could claim about Axe's paper is that it showed that this particular enzyme could retain most of its function even if it was hit with a major mutational event that resulted in changing as many as 10 of its amino acid residues simultaneously, could retain some of its function (and thus still be capable of selection) even if a mutation resulted in as much as 20% of its total amino acid residues being substituted simultaneously, and that if 40 mutations happened simultaneously, it would stop functioning. And from that, Dembski claims that it shows that any slight modification in the enzyme "does not merely destroy the system's existing function, but also destroys the possibility of any function of the system whatsoever." Folks, this takes distortion and exaggeration to a level that is staggering even for someone who is used to seeing such behavior from him.

Inlay also points out that Dembski has been aware of this for at least 2 years since he first made this claim about Axe's work, and he links to an article wherein Dembski admits that this paper doesn't really prove his point, but that he's "anticipating where he's (Axe) going". He further points to another bit of research on the same enzyme that shows that the same types of mutations that Axe induced, while impairing its function for that particular type of resistance, increases resistence of another type. So much for the claim that such changes could destroy any hope of the enyzyme having any other function. And there is much more in Inlay's post. It's absolutely devastating to Dembski's claims about Axe, and it makes the fact that he is still repeating his distortions even less forgivable.

Dembski has crossed over a line at this point, I think. I don't think it's any longer possible to maintain that he is merely an ideologue undergoing cognitive dissonance, or that he's just engaging in wishful thinking of the type we are all probably prone to when defending ideas we have a personal stake in. He is now simply lying outright, and he has to know that.

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Of course the detailed dissection of Dembski's claim is devastating, but it's also worth highlighting the bigger picture. Dembski is effectively claiming that Axe's paper says it's impossible to evolve resistance to antibiotics. This claim is so obviously untrue not even the most ardent creationist would support it (according to them it's just "micro-evolution"). It amazes me that anyone with any sense, ID supporter or not, doesn't run a mile from this dishonest, absurdly vain fool.

By Ginger Yellow (not verified) on 05 Dec 2005 #permalink

"He is now simply lying outright, and he has to know that." What motivation does he have to stop? He can lie all day long, and Salvador and the gang will make excuses. As long as the DI pays him, as long as his books sell, as long as that bible college gives him a stage, why should he care that we know he's lying? It doesn't affect him.

By fake ed brayton (not verified) on 05 Dec 2005 #permalink

Not sure if it's possible to know he's lying - that is an assessment of his state of mind. The human capacity for self-deception is seemingly unlimited.

It is, however, possible to be wrong whether you're deceiving yourself or not.

Ed, perhaps you could ask Douglas Axe to confirm if he (or the DI on his behalf) sought funding from the Templeton Foundation?

tacitus wrote:

Ed, perhaps you could ask Douglas Axe to confirm if he (or the DI on his behalf) sought funding from the Templeton Foundation?

That would be an interesting question. I could also ask my contacts at Templeton to find out if any request for such funding was ever made on Axe's behalf to fund such research. Very good suggestion. In the meantime, however, I think it's more important to point out that on the substantive issue of whether this research supports ID, or even pretends to, that Dembski is being dishonest and it does not.

decrepitoldfool wrote:

Not sure if it's possible to know he's lying - that is an assessment of his state of mind. The human capacity for self-deception is seemingly unlimited.

I recognize this, and frankly I gave Dembski the benefit of the doubt for a long time. But after his behavior concerning Jeff Shallit's testimony, which was highly dishonest, and now this, I've pretty much given up on there being a more charitable explanation. After having one's distortions pointed out over and over again, and even admitting that they're substantially correct, to continue using them in situation after situation must be seen as evidence of explicit deceit. One has to wonder how much of this his sycophants will endure before waking up.

I recall some writing by William Dembski contrasting theism with naturalism, in which he makes the remark that the successes of natural science in explaining things once thought mysterious have contributed to an erosion of faith in God. Can someone help me find the specific citation?

Randy "Duke" Cunningham, poster child for congressional corruption, after months of asserting that when the facts were known, his innocence would be evident, sobbed about how he had deceived his supporters, family... even himself.(Yup, turns out, he's as much a victim here as anyone!)

Lying or self-deceiving? With Dembski as with the Dukester, It's a distinction without a difference.

Since you mentioned him, you have to admit that Cunningham's current apology is sincere, since he is willing to take his lumps.

Ed, you can use this as another counter-example to T.O.'s insincerity.

Since you mentioned him, you have to admit that Cunningham's current apology is sincere, since he is willing to take his lumps.

Well, I suspect his "willingness to take his lumps" has more than a little to do with the perceived inevitability of an impending conviction. Plus, aside from its benefits to the soul, I believe there's a certain premium on apparent remorse when it comes to sentencing. So, to be fair, perhaps given similar inducements, Dembski would be just as contrite.

I've said before that I think Dembksi is utterly incapable of sincerely admitting to making a mistake. It's not until he's pushed into a corner that he will begin countenance the idea, and even then any half-hearted admission is always accompanied some excuse or misdirection. His mistakes are always cast as "old material", "street theatre", "trivial", or some such nonsense.

And we wonder why he avoids the scientific peer review process.

Well, I suspect his "willingness to take his lumps" has more than a little to do with the perceived inevitability of an impending conviction.

Yeah, I'm sure "Duke" is awful sorry he got caught.

lolol..... I stopped over at Dembski's blog and asked him for specific cites.

#

WD: I know for a fact that Discovery Institute tried to interest the Templeton Foundation in funding fundamental research on ID that would be publishable in places like PNAS and Journal of Molecular Biology (research that got funded without Templeton support and now has been published in these journals), and the Templeton Foundation cut off discussion before a proposal was even on the table.

EY: Can you give specific citations for these articles in PNAS and the JMB? I'd be interested in reading the articles.

[See the work of Douglas Axe. -WmAD]

Comment by lloydletta -- December 4, 2005 @ 8:16 pm

Are these the Axe papers discussed in Creationism's Trojan Horse?

Yo, has anyone heard from William Gibbons recently? Is he off looking for live sauropods in Israel? If so, could the DI fund his junket research?

Raging Bee wrote:

Yo, has anyone heard from William Gibbons recently? Is he off looking for live sauropods in Israel? If so, could the DI fund his junket research?

LOL. Gibbons hasn't been around in a while, but that's not unusual. He tends to show up here every few months, leave a long comment full of nonsense, get it pummelled and then leave again for a few months.

Raging Bee wrote:

Oh, speaking of HTML problems, why is everything appearing far below your leftmost "Blogads" or recent comment summary?

I don't know. It looks okay on my screen, except that the ads on the individual archive pages are screwed up. And for a while, I had the bizarre problem that whenever I did a blockquote the first paragraph would appear center-aligned - but ONLY the first paragraph. Totally bizarre. And I just managed to fix that by removing one /div tag in the template, but I have no idea why that fixed it. What I really need is someone who knows html and CSS coding to volunteer to fix my screwups!

BillD just went up against the 2nd LoTd.