Dembski, peer review and supernova

Bad Astronomy recently discussed (Birth cry of a supernova) the first time that “astronomers have unambiguously observed the exact moment when a star explodes.” When I first heard this news my immediate reaction was “That’s great. We have new information,” and “Does this new information conflict with our current theories of star explosion?”

That’s a normal scientific reaction. We are a curious and sceptical species – always looking for new information and always unsatisfied with our current levels of explanation. This reaction may even be self-serving. After all, if the new facts disclose inadequacies in our theory this gives the ambitious scientist an opportunity to fill those gaps by developing the theory, or even proposing new theories. It’s a way of rapidly advancing an honest scientific career. Of course it involves hard work – experiment and observation, participating in conferences, writing papers, participating in peer review and accumulating a publication record.

The intelligent design approach to peer review

This approach seems completely foreign to the proponents of intelligent design (ID).

I’ve just been reading about Bill Dembski’s use of information theory to derive evidence for design. He claims to have produced the “elusive fourth law of thermodynamics” which he calls the “Law of Conservation of Information.” His ID mates have lavished praise on him for this efforts dubbing him “the Isaac Newton of information theory” (Robert C. Koons on the back cover of Dembski’s Book Intelligent Design).

Well, Dembski has yet to publish a peer-reviewed paper in information theory. He claims to prefer writing books because they come to press quicker than scientific journal papers. But, books also avoid the discipline of peer review, don’t they. Even so, Dembski’s ideas have been extensively discussed by scientific critics and found seriously lacking. Pity. If he had accepted peer review, and publication in a scientific journal, he may have been encouraged to develop his ideas into a more credible theory.

In fact, if Dembski is really on to something this would be the logical way to go. If he has discovered a “Law of Conservation of Information” and can use it to justify a design explanation then peer review, involvement in scientific conferences and a credible record of publication in scientific journals would win him recognition by scientists – not just fellow ID activists and sycophants.

Dembski’s “explanatory filter”

As for Dembski’s current ideas. He does tend to dress them up in unnecessary mathematical formalism – probably aimed at impressing the mathematically challenged reader. They can, however, be simply described.

For example, Dembski’s “explanatory filter” is a way of “proving” design and hence intelligent design. It says simply that in considering a phenomena assume that there are only three explantions:

  1. Resulting from natural law;
  2. Resulting from chance;
  3. Resulting from design.

So firstly consider the natural law explanation. If you can’t think of one then consider chance, the probability explanation. If that doesn’t work for you then assume it results from design!

The flaws in this a pretty obvious – not the least of which is that design is the default explanation requiring no testing or evidence. Just imagine operating the filter in the reverse order – we could derive a natural explanation without any evidence!

However, this “explanatory filter” is seriously presented by ID proponents as a way of proving design!

I suppose if someone is silly enough to take this “filter” as serious evidence of design, they could be silly enough to see Dembski as today’s “Isaac Newton.”

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4 responses to “Dembski, peer review and supernova

  1. Dembski is a professional liar and he knows he’s a liar. That’s his job. He makes a living making things up about intelligent design magic and attacking science education. He made a good career choice because he’s obviously too stupid to get a real job.


  2. “Just imagine operating the filter in the reverse order – we could derive a natural explanation without any evidence!”

    Good point. I don’t see how Dembski can claim no false positives when the background knowlege regarding evolutionary processes is continually changing. I don’t see where he identifies a design “event” let alone postulate some sort of process. Without some sort of proposed design mechanism you can’t begin to compare design with known evolutionary processes to see which is more probable. Count me among the mathematically impaired but I can’t see the utility in this filter at all.


  3. One other interesting point in this is, how can someone who is capable of using said “mathematical formalism” and hence must have undergone scientific training of some sort, behave so unscientifically? What does that mean for the way science is taught nowadays? Being an engineer myself I reckon way too much time is spent on teaching students the shape of the “tools”, rather than their proper usage.
    Also, it´s interesting to see how these people operate. They completely remove themselves from what in fact constitutes science (most prominently the exposure of your work to peers)and subsequently try and make scientists come and discourse on grounds of their biassed foundation. It´s like science is a game of football and those ID-people who in fact play basketball put a sign up saying “football game” and invite you to join them.


  4. Pingback: Belief, knowledge and science « Open Parachute

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