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Baptist Press Story Misrepresents Dembski's 2000 Baylor Demotion

This just appeared in a story in the Baptist Press:

Dembski himself was at odds with some faculty members over Intelligent Design, a scientific theory that says certain patterns in nature are best explained as the product of intelligence rather than random material forces. In 2000, he was removed from his post as director of Baylor's Michael Polanyi Center for Complexity, Information, and Design after refusing to rescind a statement he made supporting Intelligent Design as a legitimate form of academic inquiry.

That's not what happened. Here's the correct narrative, as I tell it in my review of the revised edition of Ronald Numbers' The Creationists, forthcoming in the Journal of Law & Religion 23.2 (2007-08). (You can find the review online here):

.

...Numbers tells the story of the immensely gifted William A. Dembski, an ID advocate who holds PhDs in mathematics (U. of Chicago) and philosophy (U. of Illinois, Chicago) and has published an academic monograph with Cambridge University Press, The Design Inference, an extended argument on how one might go about detecting design. (384-386) Because this story concerns my home institution, Baylor University, I feel obligated to offer clarity to Numbers’s largely accurate account.

In 1999 Dembski was hired by Baylor’s then-president, Robert B. Sloan, to direct a center on religion and science that would be housed in the university’s Institute for Faith & Learning. Calling it the Michael Polanyi Center (MPC), Dembski’s hiring and center—which had initially gone unnoticed on campus—drew the negative attention of science faculty in early 2000 when links to the MPC were found on Creationist web sites.

In order to address concerns raised by MPC critics on the Baylor faculty, the administration put together a review committee consisting of mostly outside scholars of impeccable credentials in areas of scholarship relevant to assessing Dembski’s project. Numbers writes:

Although the committee recommended against continuing the center, it found no reason to quarantine advocates of intelligent design. Dembski initially praised the committee for making “the triumph of intelligent design as a legitimate form of academic inquiry,” but the president soon relieved Dembski of his position as director and ultimately closed the center. (385-386)

This is not quite right.

The committee’s final report (October 17, 2000) in fact recommended support for the center (albeit with an expanded focus) and concluded that Dembski’s scholarship is a legitimate area of academic inquiry. However, it recommended that the name “Michael Polanyi” be removed from the center. In response to the report, Dembski issued a press release (October 17, 2000) in which he praised the administration and the committee. He also made this statement:

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.

Instead of offering an olive branch and conciliatory tone at the moment of victory, Dembski angered many faculty members and embarrassed his benefactors and supporters at Baylor. Nevertheless, the administration gave Dembski a chance to extricate himself from his imprudent epistle. He was asked to offer a public apology. He refused. It was at that point that the university dismissed Dembski as MPC director. In short, Dembski snatched defeat out of the jaws of victory.

Comments (13)

I fail to understand why you criticize Dembski's statement and regard it as justifying Baylor's action.

Given that his opponents intended to drive him away from Baylor, silencing anything he might say there, his remarks about "dogmatic opponents" seem appropriate. They were committing the academic equivalent of rape, and no sensible person expects a rapist to praise her attacker. Saying anything else would have been hypocritical. Dogma doesn't want debate and needs to be exposed, particularly in academia. Given the context, Dembski was remarkably civil and free in his praise of the committee.

Consider this. If that final report had gone to other way, with those opponents having said something along the lines of "good riddance" directed at the departing Dembski, would Baylor have then expelled members of the "science faculty" for making what were clearly less than "conciliatory" remarks? Consistency would insist that they do, but I think the chance of that happening was virtually zero. There is a double standard in play here, a very clear double standard. And double standards aren't really standards.

My hunch is that Baylor officials rightly understood that Dembski's bold response demonstrated that he was not going to be cowed by his critics or show what they regard as proper deference to them. They expected him to respond much like the President Summers of Harvard did to his feminist critics in 2005 and he didn't.

In the end, the "tone" of the response wasn't the real issue. Summers could not have been more abject and apologetic, yet he was tossed out. Both Dembski and Summers had committed the greatest sin someone in today's academia can commit. They had demonstrated both a desire and an ability to think for themselves. Das ist Verboten!

For those who'd like to explore the issue of academic freedom and intelligent design in a larger context in which Dembski is one among many scientists to be silenced, fired, banned or blacklisted, I recommend Expelled, a marvelously funny Ben Stein documentary that'll be coming out in mid-April, Details at:

http://www.expelledthemovie.com/

Stein's interview of Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion is worth the price of admission. He had Dawkins admitting that the idea of an intelligent designer behind the origin of life on earth is a quite reasonable concept, but only if that designer was a race of highly intelligent space aliens rather than God. Dawkins is said to be very mad that he comes off looking so silly.

--Michael W. Perry, Editor of Eugenics and Other Evils and Chesterton on War and Peace


"I fail to understand why you criticize Dembski's statement and regard it as justifying Baylor's action."

Then you fail to understand. It was imprudent, unwise, and ultimately destructive of his project.

And if it were not these things, then why not mention it in the Baptist Press story? You would think that one would want to spread such news to others, so that the general public can make their own judgment about such acts of wisdom and prudence. Why "expel" such pearls of insight?

Mr. Dembski has not been a faculty member at Baylor for 3 years, and when he was "here" he wasn't even here. And yet, he has inserted himself in this present story, which has nothing to do with him, intelligent design, or the Discovery Institute. Absolutely nothing. You would think that someone who is a pariah at Baylor, and admits as much, would not be so foolish as to connect himself and his story to this present case and those faculty members whose futures at Baylor hang in the balance. Does he really think that such stunts really help them? Is it possible that anyone can be that pathologically stupid?

Give me a break.

The committee’s final report (October 17, 2000) in fact recommended support for the center (albeit with an expanded focus)

What was this "expanded focus" to include? Do you know?

The thing is, I suppose they just called up Dembski and asked him to comment, so it isn't quite the same thing as his inserting himself out of nowhere into the story.

The story is really odd. I looked at it quickly, and it seems to be based on statistics rather than on any particular evidence about the areas in which the denied faculty were working or anything.

I also happen to know that there is a much, much bigger story that Baptist Press is (AFAIK) not reporting on concerning the firing of _tenured_ faculty at Cedarville College. That story has made it into the Chronicle of Higher Education and has attracted the attention of the AAUP. There's even a "recorded conversation" scandal involved in it, so it's rather juicy. It's a nationwide story concerning personnel matters at a Baptist college, in which there is specific and credible evidence that ideological motivations were involved. I've been meaning to write about it here on W4, but I'm not sure how much more there is for me to say that is public knowledge and hasn't been published in the Chronicle,a nd I haven't had time to decide how to select material. But the Baptist PRess almost looks like it's writing about Baylor while ignoring the Cedarville story, which is much more of a story with more meat to it. Is that the elephant in the room?

Lydia:

Bill could have said, "No comment." That's what you do when you don't live an egocentric universe.

Frank

To me the whole question is the nature and quality of Bill Dembski's evidence. I understand that your contention, Frank, is that he has no relevant evidence about the more recent tenure denials that this story is about and is just projecting his own previous experience onto the present situation. This is entirely possible, as is the psychological state of "living in an egocentric universe" that you mention. But _he_ says that all the faculty denied tenure wanted the school to retain its Christian identity and that this was plausibly the reason for their denials--that Baylor is purging such faculty. I have no idea what his evidence is for claiming there is such a pattern or trend. But the whole question of helping people or embarrassing people or whatever doesn't seem to me nearly so important as the question of whether Dembski is just talking through his hat or whether he (or anyone else) has evidence that Baylor is purging conservatives and that the spike in denials is ideological. If the latter, then harsh as this may sound, I think sunlight is the best disinfectant, and people don't have some sort of duty to keep quiet. Certainly a hush-hush atmosphere and a refusal to speak such things out loud can do harm if only in terms of allowing administrators to get away with stuff they shouldn't get away with without rocking the boat with their base.

Lydia:

Dembski is factually wrong. Many strong pro-2012 faculty were tenured, and some denied tenure were not exactly out front on Baylor's Christian identity. Moreover, one does not receive tenure at Baylor because one supports its Christian identity. If that were the case, we ought to give the janitors tenure. It's the quality of one's academic accomplishments over the probationary period that counts. Having said that, I do not disagree that some denied tenure have a strong case for reconsideration. But there is no anti-Christian identity purging going on.

Frank


The United States has hundreds of colleges. It has grown pretty clear over the years that, in some of them, some departments do hypocritically suppress nonliberal inquiry. Hypocrisy however by its very nature is hard to quantify, for hypocrites do not act openly. I wonder how many assistant professors failing to gain tenure charge hypocrisy where little or none actually exists.

Each of us carries around in his head a sort of mental model of the world, informed by the long accretion of experience. My mental model, my intuition, is beginning to suggest to me that most of the protests one hears against left-wing hypocrisy in academia are badly overblown. For every genuine Lawrence Summers one hears of there seem to be three or four bitter blowhards, angry because they neither deserved nor got what they wanted in academic life.

Undoubtedly the truth is more complex, but, somehow, it seems that assistant professors that cultivate the art of getting along with people manage to survive. Not every college is a nasty Harvard or Duke. The chief witness against Dr. Dembski's complaint is his own intemperate quote, for which he apparently never saw fit graciously to apologize. If an intemperate character lay beneath the intemperate quote, as seems not unlikely, then is it really a wonder that his Baylor colleagues wished to be rid of him?

I am a white, male, hard-right wing paleoconservative traditionalist who holds, and sometimes expresses, views many others consider to be racist and sexist. This somehow does not stop me from getting along with people; but, then, when I inadvertently anger people I never meant to provoke I quietly make peace with them as soon as I can. Moreover, I try generally to consider the sensibilities of my immediate audience before I pipe up. Does Dembski?

That one holds views contrary to received liberal orthodoxy does not give one the right to be obnoxiously tiresome about it, nor to abuse the goodwill and patience of the people around him. I wonder when was the last time Dr. Dembski thought collegially to ask one of his colleagues, say, how the colleague's children were doing. If he had done more often, it might have helped.

Howard, I don't think generalizations like that can be made in either direction, because the variations are so great from one school to another, department to another, and discipline to another. Departmental culture is sometimes what it's all about. As far as students, I do think generalizations are easier to make, because so many schools do have (for example) orientation sessions that require white breast-beating, dorm meetings for students living in the dorms, and liberal classes where students are brow-beaten. These things can be avoided, but only with care and deliberateness. Left-wing purges and pushes most certainly do exist. For the most part the real question is to what extent a legitimate academic discipline exists and to what extent the departments, professors, administrators, etc., are trying to pursue legitimate academic inquiry. Unfortunately the integrity of the disciplines has taken some heavy blows in the U.S., which has led to non-overblown reports of real politicization. But individual cases have to be examined on their merits, and it sounds plausible that Dembski is jumping to conclusions here.

"Then you fail to understand. It was imprudent, unwise, and ultimately destructive of his project."

"Is it possible that anyone can be that pathologically stupid?"

"Bill could have said, "No comment." That's what you do when you don't live an egocentric universe."

Frank,

I am concerned that you do not feel free to express yourself fully. You ought to try not holding back and clearly state your opinions.
;-)

Jay Watts

assistant professors that cultivate the art of getting along with people manage to survive

"manage to survive"

Yes, like the stereoptical smiles of an adman. And remember, don't point or stand in front of Kim II Sung.

I think the broader issue is that William Dembski has proven time and time again he does not play well with others, does not have much regard for ordinary rules and standards that everyone else is expected to adhere to and seems to enjoy (and profit from) the sense that he is a persecuted victim. Dembski had it made at Baylor and he shot himself in the foot. He had a president in Sloan who supported his ID work, he had a center to do his ID "research". He had it made.

If you read Dembski's blog it's obvious he and his following thrive on portraying him as being victimized by Baylor. The time he posted home phone numbers and home addresses for Baylor Regents and officials and encouraged his followers to harass them was especially revealing.

William Dembski is a "victim" of his own childish self-centeredness. For evidence of this claim simply reference his own blog - www.uncommondescent.com

Christopher

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