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Intelligent design controversy continues to fester at Baylor

WACO, Texas (BP)–When it comes to creation and evolution, science increasingly is a subject of debate at Baylor University.

A noted scientist who holds to “intelligent design” of the universe rather than Darwinian-style evolution was removed Oct. 19 from his post as director of a Baylor think tank after refusing to rescind a statement he had circulated on campus and the Metanews e-mail list focused on science and religion.

The prof, William Dembski, had stated:

“The report [a Baylor-commissioned study of the university’s Michael Polanyi Center for Complexity, Information, and Design headed by Dembski released Oct. 17] marks the triumph of intelligent design as a legitimate form of academic inquiry. This is a great day for academic freedom. I’m deeply grateful to President Sloan and Baylor University for making this possible, as well as to the peer review committee for its unqualified affirmation of my own work on intelligent design. … My work on intelligent design will continue unabated. Dogmatic opponents of design who demanded the Center be shut down have met their Waterloo. Baylor University is to be commended for remaining strong in the face of intolerant assaults on freedom of thought and expression.”

Dembski, whose publishers include Cambridge University Press, remains under contract at Baylor and now holds the post of an associate professor.

Opponents of Dembski’s work at Baylor, which is affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas, have interpreted Dembski’s references to “dogmatic opponents” and “intolerant assaults” as references to themselves and their opposition to Dembski’s thinking on intelligent design.

Also putting the Waco, Texas, university in the spotlight has been a letter by eight Baylor science professors declaring, “Intelligent design is not a science,” that made its way into the Congressional Record.

The eight professors were writing to Rep. Mark Souter, R.-Ind., complaining of a Capitol Hill conference on intelligent design May 10.

The Congressional Record entry, including Souter’s comments and the professors’ full letter, can be seen at a Southern Baptist Convention Internet site, www.Baptist2Baptist.net.

Intelligent design is “an old philosophical argument that has been dressed up as science” and has not undergone substantive peer review in the scientific community, the eight professors wrote.

While many scientists believe in God, the profs wrote, “Materialistic science does not say that there is no God. Rather, it says that God, due to His supernatural and divine nature, cannot be proved or disproved, thus we cannot consider His role in the natural phenomena we observe. Therefore, the existence of God is not a question within the realm of science.”

Souter, in his remarks entered into the Congressional Record, stated, “I am appalled that any university seeking to discover truth, yet alone a university that is a Baptist Christian school, could make the kinds of statements that are contained in this letter. Is their position on teaching about materialistic science so weak that it cannot withstand scrutiny and debate?”

Souter noted, “Today, qualified scientists are reaching the conclusion that [intelligent] design theory makes better sense of the data” for such questions as “whether the DNA code is the result of natural causes or an intelligent agent.”

The Congressional Record entry has received ongoing attention since its publication in mid-June.

The controversy over Dembski and the Polanyi Center was sparked by a 26-2 vote by Baylor’s faculty senate on April 18 calling for dissolution of the center, which had been created at the initiative of Baylor President Robert B. Sloan Jr.

The faculty senate vote came just three days after the center sponsored a four-day conference on the role of naturalism in science featuring leading proponents of both Darwinian evolution and intelligent design theories. At issue during the conference was the question: Is the universe self-contained, as widely held throughout the scientific community, or does it require something beyond itself to explain its existence and internal function?

The controversy prompted Sloan to create an external review committee, chaired by a Baylor faculty member but otherwise composed of scholars from other academic institutions. The committee’s report was issued Oct. 17 and affirmed by Sloan.

Among the committee’s conclusions: “… research on the logical structure of mathematical arguments for intelligent design [has] a legitimate claim to a place in current discussions of the relations of religion and the sciences.”

The field of pursuit is new, having “only just begun to receive response in professional journals,” the external review committee said, yet Baylor “should be free, if it chooses, to include in its coverage this line of work, when carried out professionally.”

Among the review committee’s other recommendations were placing the center under Baylor’s Institute for Faith and Learning and discontinuing use of the Polanyi name because the late Hungarian chemist for whom the Baylor center is named, while having built a reputation for studying the interaction of science, philosophy and religion, did not believe that an agent of intelligent design is needed to explain the growth of the living world.

The committee also suggested that an advisory committee of Baylor faculty be appointed “to assist in planning and reviewing the science and religion component” of the institute.

The external review committee’s endorsement of study in intelligent design prompted Dembski’s e-mail statement, which caused controversy on campus and led to his demotion.

Michael Beaty, director of the Institute of Faith and Learning, in an official statement announcing Dembski’s dismissal, said, “The theme of the report emphasized the need for individuals associated with the center to work together in a collegial manner.” Dembski’s actions after the release of the report, Beaty said, “compromised his ability to serve as director.”

Dembski, in response to the statement by Beaty, told the Waco Tribune-Herald, “I think it needed to be clear in my statements that there was tremendous opposition to this center, and it would not have been an accurate representation if there was not some reference [to the conflict].”

Dembski holds Ph.D. degrees in mathematics from the University of Chicago and in philosophy from the University of Illinois at Chicago. He has done post-doctoral work in mathematics at MIT, in physics at the University of Chicago and computer science at Princeton University. He earned a B.A. in psychology and M.S. in statistics also from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a master of divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary.

Dembski’s writings include a book titled, “Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology,” published by Inter Varsity Press in November 1999, and 1998 Cambridge University Press book titled, “The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance Through Small Probabilities.”

Jay Losey, a Baylor English professor and faculty senate chairman, told the Waco newspaper, “I think everyone is saddened when a colleague is demoted, but these things happen. In this case, in my judgment, the colleague was intemperate in remarks that he made. There has to be accountability.”

Losey told The Lariat, the Baylor student newspaper, that “there is deep, genuine concern on the part of Baylor faculty regarding some of the statements made in the e-mail. Deep, genuine concern.”

Losey, to the Tribune-Herald, also said, “Baylor faculty will accept Dembski and [another center associate, Bruce] Gordon as colleagues, provided that they do what all of their other colleagues at Baylor University are doing,” Losey said. “That is disseminating their best thinking in peer-review journals and presses that have readers reviewing manuscripts submitted for publication.”

Sloan, in a statement in conjunction with the external study committee’s report release Oct. 17, had said, “I am pleased that the central mission of the center has been affirmed and that the committee has underscored the fact that support of academic freedom includes protecting controversial ideas.”