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The DEMBSKI ALERT

By James Downard

Posted July 23, 2006

Episode I

On 26 April 2006, William Dembski declared "I'm happy to report I was in constant correspondence with Ann [Coulter] regarding her chapters on Darwinism -- indeed, I take all responsibility for any errors in those chapters."

Taking him at his word, I addressed an email to him on 10 July. Since the first two parts of the Coulter criticism were already posted here at Talk Reason (and at Panda's Thumb), there would be at hand specific examples of problems with Coulter's argument that Dembski could either defend or repudiate. Moreover, there were potential issues not yet discussed, but which may have been abetted by Dembski's "constant correspondence" with her. Given what Dembski had said about his contribution, both were perfectly legitimate areas for inquiry. What I wrote even offered him a partial escape route from embracing Coulter's mistakes:

Dear Bill

I see that you, Michael Behe, and David Berlinski are commended by Ann Coulter in her new book apropos the "generous tutoring" she obtained at your hands. I am presently in the process of analyzing her antievolution "Darwiniac" arguments point-by-point at Talk Reason (with courtesy postings at Panda's Thumb as well), and so naturally am curious about the extent and content of those tutorials, and to what degree those tutorials could have contributed to her written conclusions.

I also notice that you "take all responsibility for any errors in those chapters" (Uncommon Descent for April 26, 2006).

In Parts I & II posted so far I have noted Coulter's remarkable unfamiliarity with the range of the ID controversy and apparent unawareness of the biogeographical underpinning of speciation, as well as a consistent inattention to any of the available fossil information. Am I correct in surmising, for example, that you did not communicate any of the content of Cavalier-Smith's review of Behe's book, or the particulars of biogeography to Coulter, or the relevant fossil taxa in matters paleontological? Hence that you would not be legitimately liable for her views relating to those points?

Regarding upcoming analyses, there are a host of terms and concepts which do not figure in Coulter's treatment, so I wish to know whether any of these came up in the tutorials (either through her own questions or on your initiative). A sampling of terms, in more or less consecutive order:

neoteny
homeobox genes
endosymbiosis
phosphatization
tunicate larvae Conservation Lagerstatten
plate subduction
erosion
coelerosaurs
Mesozoic birds
dentary bones
mammalian developmental biology
Probainognathus

Any comment or information concerning this will be of considerable assistance in clarifying the extent to which Coulter has accurately reflected her tutorial experience.

Jim Downard

Dembski did not reply directly to this email. Instead he immediately posted it in full under the heading "For sheer smarminess, this one is hard to beat." His sole comment on it was this: "In the interest of propriety, I won't list the host of terms and concepts that came to my mind as I read this email."

Whereupon comments filtered in from several of the Uncommon Descent followers, assailing me for my cheek. "Charlie" and "Larry Fafarman" (calling me "a complete idiot") said that Coulter's "popular treatment" hadn't been written as a "biology textbook" or an "encyclopedia." Most certainly true. But does being a "popular" treatment let an author off the hook for being flat out wrong? Or render it illegitimate to take Dembski at his word about his contribution to her tome?

Regarding my term list, "russ" decided I suffered from an "inability to communicate with regular people." Mung quipped that "Conservation Lagerstatten" was "A Great German beer." More at length, (and roundly applauded by "Scott") "lucID" convulsed with self-amusement as he appended some of his own "to put in his smug pipe and smoke it" and thereby clarify "the extent to which Jimbo & Co. have accurately reflected their religion."

Evidently clueless about how his comments only confirmed what I was saying about the vacuous nature of ID discussion, I felt quite honored to be tarred with such a jejune brush as this:

imbecile impudence
visual impairment
sarcasm
archaeopteryx hoax
evidence subduction
truth erosion
scotoma
imaginary developmental biology
victorian myths
thermodynamics
myopic dissonance
specified complexity
mathematical improbability
scientific method
vagueisms
irreducible complexity
perjury
misrepresentation
Haeckelian Artistry
Eugenic Sophism
Peppered Lepidoptera mimcry
Peking malarkey
masquerading LaMarkery
migratory red herrings
faux amorphous silicon dioxide abiogenesis

Episode II

Dembski of course could have replied ever so simply that he had (or had not) mentioned the particular items on my list (after all, he either did or did not do so, so this is a matter of mere scholarly fact). Dembski could further have inquired about what context did I have in mind for these items -- to which I would have been happy to reply with particulars. Or Dembski could have read my two posts, discerned the context of the Cavalier-Smith and fossil examples directly, and offered his own honest response to whether he thought my criticisms were justified or not. Finally, Dembski could even have bristled at my "smarminess" without crossing into any turf that would have hurt my feelings.

But Dembski had done none of these things. Curious to see just how far this might lead, on Bastille Day I sent this reply to Dembski:

Dear Bill

You take "all responsibility for any errors" in Coulter's evolution chapters. Your words, not mine. Coulter has written what she has written. Either you are willing to defend each of her published assertions, or you may repudiate them. You have done neither.

Thus the questions I asked remain. As amply evidenced by her prior works, Coulter can get confused entirely on her own. But it is also legitimate to wonder to what extent her published antievolution statements are due to your proud tutoring?

In my effort to resolve this point, I apologize for having employed specific terminology in my letter as though I were communicating with someone who was scientifically literate. My mistake. I wish I could avoid such highfallutin language, but unfortunately words actually mean things, and it is occasionally necessary to use them when the subject is something that directly relates to them. Much like those symbols required for precise discourse in the math biz. You remember that.

Perhaps I should have kept things on the melodramatic level of your blog buddies. "I take umbrage, sir! I am an insufferable smart ass, and refuse to accept demotion to mere smarminess. A duel at sunrise. Choice of weapons, scholarly pen."

Once your brain cools down from that "host of terms and concepts" that came to your mind whilst reading my annoying affront to your repose, what I had to say about what Coulter had to say is readily available to you at Talk Reason. Should you feel disposed to defend any statement or repudiate them, in whatever venue you may elect, don't let my smarminess stop you.

In the spirit of those popular competition shows on TV, I will even throw down a challenge. See if you can get to your response before I get to the substance of it. Topic: the "mammalian developmental biology" I put on my list. Clue: it was sandwiched between dentary bones and Probainognathus. And with due apologies to lucID, this involves real developmental biology, nothing "imaginary" about it. As it happens, though, unless you mentioned the information to her (which I suspect you could not have), Coulter didn't get to be wrong here because of anything she might have heard from you. She could only have got her misinformation from one specific source, written by someone known to you, who was objectively familiar with it, but didn't write of it either because they didn't recognize its significance (or did, and suppressed it).

Finally, I do appreciate the way in which you elected to respond to my email. By posting it in the public domain for all to see, without answering any of its points, and by the rib-nudging grunting of your commentators, you illustrate very neatly the depth of care and studiousness you are capable of contributing to scholarly discourse.

In the words of "The Closer": Thank You.

Jim (Insufferable Smart Ass) Downard

On 14 July 2006 (thus instantaneously) my email was posted at Uncommon Descent, under the tag "For your amusement from a man who just doesn't know when to stop." This time Dembski offered no end remarks. But the clack promptly weighed in. DaveScot decided "Jim writes like a girly man. 'Nuff said." And lucID bemoaned my "shrill tone" and suggested for dueling weapons: "handbags at dawn rather than pens, as you might just accidentally injure yourself with a pen."

As you can see, my interaction with Uncommon Descent just kept getting better! For apart from the childish character of the comments (and such jibes are not unknown among pro-evolution blogs, so that cannot be taken too far) was the more substantive piffle: not one of the posters showed the slightest familiarity with what I had written at Talk Reason/Panda's Thumb. That being the point at issue, they only continued to illustrate the sort of mind-numbing lack of curiosity and laziness that is how Coulter had got in trouble in Godless.

Remember, these were all people who presumably have computers with web access, so nothing but abject lethargy (or a power failure) could have prevented their tumbling onto the substance of my Talk Reason articles had they had an inclination to do so.

It is quite impossible to think about something if you don't even take the trouble of learning about it.

As things were looking increasingly interesting, I delved a bit further into the response mode of Uncommon Descent with a reply email on 18 July. As of this writing this one has not been posted:

Dear Bill

I'm glad you have found my letters a source of entertainment. The feeling is entirely mutual. Your non-replies and the side comments have been especially instructive. It was certainly useful to learn just how much "descent" is required to spy Uncommon Descent at work: DaveScot and lucID playing with the ad hominem mud pies down in the basement slurry.

My, the kids you do play with!

As to your heading tag line, my background includes a strong work ethic and the belief that a job begun must be done well through. I also believe that an idea worth having is one worth defending. So I guess I don't "know when to stop" when it comes to issues of curiosity or intellectual honesty. But then, you don't know when to start.

Two opportunities have now passed for you to make good on your promise to "take responsibility for any errors" in Coulter's treatment of evolution. Until and unless that happens, it may be fairly concluded that you have no intention to do so. That means your April 26th statement was nothing but a sham, a falsehood.

The extent to which that carries interesting philosophical baggage depends on the degree to which one pays attention to systems that take a dim view of the "bearing false witness" thing. It may be that you are a closet moral relativist, though, personally exempting you from such finicky standards.

Jim Downard

Epilogue

Getting back to the terms noted in my first email to Dembski, in the posts to follow in the Coulter series I will be noting a DEMBSKI ALERT to indicate topics which I attempted to inquire about from that font of knowledge. Readers (or at least those with enough gumption to navigate the Internet in that exhausting way) of the next Coulter series installments will therefore have a perhaps rather useful measuring stick to use in assessing Dembski and other ID advocates who employ similarly "deep" reasoning.

Indeed, followers of Dembski's antics may try holding his feet to the fire here. Remember he can't crawl very far away, having obligingly and willingly shackled that quite heavy Coulterian anchor to his own ankle.


See also:
Secondary Addiction: Ann Coulter on Evolution
Secondary Addiction Part II: Ann Coulter on Evolution
Secondary Addiction Part III: Ann Coulter on Evolution

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