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FIRST-PERSON: How not to debate intelligent design

WACO, Texas (BP)–Intelligent design has many critics. Some play hard and fair. Robert Pennock is not one of them.

Pennock has just published “Intelligent Design Creationists and Their Critics” with MIT Press. It includes two essays by me. Pennock never contacted me about their inclusion. Indeed, I only learned of their inclusion after his volume was published and became available to the public during the first week of January.

It appears that Pennock and MIT Press are legally in the clear — Pennock selected pieces for which he was able to obtain copyright permissions without having to consult me.

There’s more to ethics, however, than legalities. What Pennock and MIT Press have done is emblematic of the viewpoint discrimination that dissenters to Darwinism face in American academic culture. Pennock’s volume is supposed to constitute a definitive refutation of intelligent design, allowing intelligent design proponents to have their say and then meet their strongest critics. Instead, it is a shabby ploy to cast intelligent design in the worst possible light.

Imagine if someone critical of Darwinian evolutionary theory decided to publish a book titled “Dogmatic Darwinian Fundamentalists and Their Critics,” managed to obtain copyright permissions for pieces by prominent Darwinists (mostly outdated pieces at that), and then situated their pieces within a collection of critical replies designed to make them look ridiculous. Substitute intelligent design for Darwinism, and that’s what Pennock and MIT Press have done.

In my case, Pennock chose a popular 2,000-word essay of mine titled “Who’s Got the Magic?” and followed it with a 9,000-word rebuttal by him titled “The Wizards of ID.” For the other essay of mine, Pennock chose “Intelligent Design as a Theory of Information,” which was a popular piece on information theory that’s now five years old. I’ve written much on that topic since then, and the essay itself is now outdated. Moreover, Pennock followed that essay with three critical responses. One of those responses, by Elliott Sober, was a lengthy technical review (from the journal “Philosophy of Science”) of my technical monograph “The Design Inference” (Cambridge University Press, 1998). No portion of that monograph or anything comparable from my work was included in Pennock’s book. Finally, I was given no chance to respond to my critics.

I contacted both Pennock and MIT Press to register my concerns. I would like to have seen a public apology by Pennock and some notice by MIT Press indicating that my essays appeared without my knowledge, that they represent my popular rather than technical work on intelligent design, and that I was not given a chance to reply to my critics. Pennock indicated that unless I chose to pursue legal action, he considered the matter closed. MIT Press ignored my concerns and indicated they would be happy to hear about any other concerns I might have.

I do not plan to seek legal redress, though it seems to me that Pennock and MIT Press have deliberately tried to undermine my standing in the academic community. Pennock chose popular and outdated work of mine, positioned various critiques of my work with it, gave me no opportunity to reply to my critics, and packaged it all in a volume titled “Intelligent Design Creationists and Their Critics,” thus casting me as a creationist, which in contemporary academic culture is equivalent to being cast as a flat earther, astrologer or Holocaust denier. There’s no way I would have allowed my work to appear under such conditions if I had any say in the matter. Pennock saw to it that I had no say in the matter.

Some critics of intelligent design play hard and fair. They allow intelligent design proponents to put their best foot forward and they in turn produce their strongest counterarguments to intelligent design. Pennock, by contrast, is like the Emperor Commodus in the movie “Gladiator,” who first needs to hamstring his opponents before he tosses them into the arena.

Episodes like this are bad for American academic life. They undermine free and open exchange. They make for bad feelings on all sides. And they prevent ideas from getting the critical scrutiny they need. Intelligent design needs critical scrutiny. But by rigging the debate the way he did, Pennock ensures that intelligent design will continue to be politicized. Pennock’s new book is an object lesson in how not to debate intelligent design.
William A. Dembski, Ph.D., is associate research professor in the conceptual foundations of science at Baylor University’s Institute for Faith and Learning and editor of the quarterly online journal, Progress in Complexity, Information, and Design, of the new International Society for Complexity, Information, and Design. Among the books Dembski has authored “No Free Lunch” and “The Design Inference.” He also is the co-editor of “Signs of Intelligence: Understanding Intelligent Design.”

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  • William A. Dembski