Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The first time Dembski booted me

When Dembski booted me from his blog, he wrote:
David Heddle: I don't like your attitude. I recently booted you off a listserve that I moderate. I'm now booting you from this blog. Goodbye.
Several people asked me to comment on the list from which Dembski booted me prior to banning me from Uncommon Descent. I didn't respond, deciding instead to think about how I could answer carefully. You see, the list asks members not to reveal posts (unless the author grants permission) and not even mention the list by name. I want to respect that.

Simply acknowledging the existence of the list is not revealing anything, especially since Dembski already announced that he threw me off.

After consideration I decided that since Dembski mentioned (for no apparent reason) that he booted me from the list then, as they say in all those Law and Order episodes, opposing counsel has "opened the door."

I will relate general themes and my own posts that led to my expulsion, without revealing any names (other than Dembski) and without pasting any forum content (other than my own). Revealing my own posts is absolutely permissible.

First I wanted to search the archives of the list that I have stored on my personal computer, reexamining all my posts. There weren't many. Mostly I lurked. In fact, I didn't even read most of the posts, beyond the subject line, because few dealt with my interest, which is cosmological ID. Most of my contributions were of the "ID is not science" form. Some were notes of appreciation for the occasional post I found useful.

I first got into trouble on the forum before Dembski was the moderator. Unaware that it was the third-rail of ID, I posted something mildly negative about young earth creationism. I soon found out that some members of the list are extremely sensitive about this topic. I also learned about the "big tent." The big tent is this: ID welcomes all views on the age of the earth. Furthermore, to prevent internal squabbles, the topic of the age of the earth is verboten.

Welcoming all views is reasonable--after all science (and this list is supposed to be about science) welcomes all views. But what science never does is place views "off limits." How, I asked in subsequent posts, can we be "about science" if a scientific topic, namely the age of the earth, is off the table? A handful of people replied by email (I flew below most everyone's radar on this list) to say they agreed with me, but on the list the argument against my position was that the age of the earth was not relevant in the domain of ID. I pointed out that for cosmological ID it is extremely relevant, since fine-tuning arguments make no sense for a YEC position--but shortly thereafter the thread was closed for discussion. (I didn't post much on this list, but I had a Ted Williams-like batting average for having my threads closed.)

Here's the thing: there is no such animal as a "big tent" (as the term is used on this list) in science. Science is the ultimate meritocracy. A fragile persona will not survive. Apart from a gentleman's agreement to treat young students with kid gloves--and even then only for a short while--nobody gets a free pass. In my novel Here, Eyeball This! I describe the dynamic this way, explaining why a professor in the story didn't act "hurt" when he was accidentally placed in an embarrassing social situation:
By necessity, physicists develop thick skins. A great deal of professional activity involves giving and attending talks and seminars. These often degenerated into one physicist insulting another over his deplorable lack of acumen. Many times Aaron had heard this same Mike Jacob say to another professor, or even a visitor, in regard to some subtle physics argument, 'Hey man, that’s just plain stupid.' After some discussion, the target of the jibe would either concede that he had indeed presented a stupid argument, or Jacob would retract his comment and admit that he was 'both a jackass and a fool'. Then they would go on as if nothing had happened, no hard feelings whatsoever.
Put more succinctly: there's no crying in science. You present your ideas--you defend them--and you try to persuade, but nothing is sacred.

The next time I got into trouble (with the same people as it turns out) on the list was fairly recently, at the beginning of September, but still before Dembski became moderator. Ironically, I got in trouble along with Dembski. Here's what happened. About a month ago I saw a post on Uncommon Descent that criticized a certain university for having a essay contest for prospective students in which the winner would be awarded a $50K scholarship. The topic had to be related to a resource from Answers In Genesis--though I am still not sure if the money comes from the university or AiG. What Dembski complained about on Uncommon Descent (the post was later modified and finally removed) is that he had been informed that an ID essay, even if it were neutral regarding the age of the earth, could be submitted but it would not win the contest. I agreed with Dembski that this bizarre position was both untenable and blog-worthy. So I also posted, with liberal pasting from Dembski's blog--and with attributions (in the form of the blogger's "hat-tip") to Uncommon Descent.

That night (or the next evening) I received a polite phone call from the list's moderator asking me to remove the post and apologize, because I had posted content from the forum. I said that I would remove it, but I wasn't sure if I would apologize, because I hadn't even read the relevant posts and all my questionable content was lifted from a public website, i.e., Uncommon Descent. The moderator said he understood that I did nothing wrong but still wanted me to remove the post from this blog, which I did.

However, I did not apologize--not solely due to the fact that I'm a rotten bastard but at least in part because I don't find pro forma apologies of the pattern "sorry if I accidentally offended you" very meaningful. Here is the [sanitized] mea culpa I posted to the list:
Yes I also blogged on this issue, having learned about the contest and *****'s quote (about [an] ID paper will not win) from another blog, not from a ***** post. I actually attributed the other blog when I posted the quote. In other words, I cut and pasted (and attributed) a public internet site.

I will remove my blog post as requested by *****.


David Heddle
Now, Dembski was in the right in this instance. As it turns out, a member posted information on the contest on the list for the admitted purpose of encouraging dissemination. Well, once you grant permission to publicize information you can't then whine about it if someone finds it worthy of ridicule. (The gist of my post was that a Christian university was holding a contest the requirements for which would have excluded many church fathers as well as many renowned theologians.)

Even more bizarre, everything I posted was also available on the university's and/or AiG's website, with the exception of the quote about an ID paper not having a chance. But that quote wasn't on the list (at least I couldn't find it, and still can't in my archives)--I suspect it was private communication between the member and Dembski. So I did not violate any rules of the list, not even accidentally. Furthermore, I don't blame Dembski for posting. His site is frequented by IDers--it is quite proper for him to provide a warning to his readers that if any of them are thinking of entering an ID essay, don't bother--it'd be a waste of time.

That was not the end of it. Even though no actual list information was revealed that wasn't available elsewhere, you'd have thought that we had leaked atomic secrets to Iran. It turns out that I had also, somehow, cast aspersions on the good name of the university in question and reignited the "big tent" admonitions. At one point I posted:
The "big tent" discussion prompts me to post regarding what I see as schizophrenia in the ID community.

My personal view of ID is that it is a scientific-based apologetic. In that regards, I have no problem with a "big-tent." All my ID talks are on fine-tuning and cosmology. In spite of being labeled a heretic now and then by outspoken YECs, I generally have no problems--in fact the majority of the audiences in the churches and colleges were I speak are biased toward a YEC position. (I don't get invited to public schools anymore--the backfiring of the ID community's political strategies has poisoned that well.)

However, if I agreed with what I suspect is the majority position on this list, that ID is all about the science--well then I'd have a huge problem with the big tent. Because it is manifestly true that one of the two positions, OEC or YEC, is grossly abusing science. This is not a case where both can be right. It's not even a case where both can be wrong.

So if we are indeed all about science, why is that topic the third rail of ID, or at least the third rail of this list? To me the ID community sends a message to the outside world that is no different that if it stated: we believe ID is all about science, but we don't take a position on Newton's Laws.

Just to be clear, I am in favor of the big tent. But I view it as a luxury that I enjoy only because I don't believe that ID is all about the science.

[David Heddle]
And, in response to charges of having insulted a YEC on the list:

Come, on. Is your skin really that thin? How can a simple statement of fact that I, David Heddle, stated that "I would be embarrassed"--not that "***** U[niversity] should be ashamed of itself" or anything of that nature--be offensive? Not just offensive, but "extremely derogatory." It's simply my opinion--just ignore it for crying out loud. Or if it really bugs you respond with something more substantive that claiming injury.

We should be immune from the hair-trigger on our sensibilities that has infected the rest of the world. Any why should the number of ***** faculty on this list be of any significance?

I did not, in my comment, criticize your view, or *****'s view, or AiG's view, on the age of the earth. If you inferred that from my comment, you are reading into it. I'm criticizing, I thought rather clearly, that a Christian University would offer a scholarship that would exclude many prominent Christian theologians. Even there, I'm not questioning your right to do it; I'm questioning the wisdom of it. And it's true, if I were a ***** alumnus, I would find it extremely embarrassing. And if the money is coming from ***** and not AiG, I’d be incensed.

By the way, if they offered a scholarship that exactly accommodated my reformed theology and scientific background but excluded Christian brothers and sisters of a different opinion, I'd also be embarrassed.

As an institution such as ***** that is so newsworthy, so much in the public eye, so prominent, why do you think that you are beyond criticism?

And who is "dismissing" you? You certainly have extracted a great deal of meaning from my short ***** comment.

Your clarification regarding ID seems to have shifted from "An ID essay could be submitted, but would not be selected as the winner" to "any paper can be submitted, but not just any paper will win" which is quite different and really goes without saying for any essay contest, don't you think?

David Heddle, Ph.D.
As you might imagine at this point I was skating on thin ice.

Shortly thereafter it was announced with great fanfare that Dembski would be the new moderator of the list. From being scolded and asked to apologize one day to the new moderator the next was quite impressive--my own rehabilitation was not so spectacular. Worse, I immediately fell into the bad graces of the new ruler.

We are now at the time, a few weeks ago, when the pope made a statement widely interpreted by many, including me, as clarifying that Rome is not peachy-keen with your garden-variety theory of evolution. When, in late August there were just rumors about the pope making a statement on evo/design I wrote an opinion that it would be bad for the pope to endorse ID, followed by a sarcastically triumphant post when, a couple weeks later, the pope's statement came out.

On the list, I posted:
In my opinion the pope's statement is the best we could hope for. By that I don't mean: well, he could have endorsed ID, but we knew that wasn't going to happen, so we'll take what we can get. No, I mean he could not have issued a better statement. It will be very difficult to continue the quote-mining about Rome's position, although I expect the NCSE will try.
OK, not too bad. I'm in dangerous territory, but since I busted on the NCSE I think I got a pass. However, later in this same thread a member took exception to the point and, without revealing details, offered a generic teological statement and asked, sarcastically, if it would have been so bad for the Church to have at least endorsed that. To which I responded:
Of course not. And the church does endorse that statement, as I'm sure many have pointed out. What would be bad is for the church to endorse the view that the flagellum is irreducibly complex-- because maybe it isn't. And it would be bad for the church to endorse the view that you can mathematically determine whether something is designed-- because maybe you can't. It would be good for the church to do exactly what Rome seems to be doing: endorsing the scriptural view that God's creative work is so evident that all men are without excuse, and that any theory of evolution that rules out God's intervention at any time it pleases Him --and especially one that claims any random processes played a role in the development of the human species, is incompatible with Catholicism.

David Heddle
At this point, moderator Dembski stopped discussion in this thread, claiming the discussion was over "the same tired issue." I then posted:
Is there a list somewhere of what are the "same tired issues?" Because I don't see how a recent major address by the pope, one that brings some needed clarity to Rome's position, is a tired issue. Nor would I characterize the discussion that follows--dealing with analyzing his statements--as tired.

Then again, maybe I'm just sick of being the Grim Reaper. This is at least the second or possibly the third time, in recent memory, that a subject has been gaveled immediately after I posted.

The arbitrariness of gaveling discussions is annoying.

David Heddle
What happens next is that I got an email from Dembski, which I am going to post. If anyone takes exception, I'll point out that an unsolicited email is regarded as the property of the recipient, especially if the sender does not make any special request regarding its confidentiality. The email was also sent to the list.

Debski wrote:

Gaveling this discussion means moving it off this list, and that, obviously, includes a discussion of the merits of whether it should have been gaveled in the first place -- any such "meta-discussion"
takes us right back to square one. If you have a problem with my moderation -- and that applies to any of you -- take it up with me directly.

It bears repeating that the default view of ID for this list is the position hammered out over a fifteen year period starting with Phil Johnson and moving through to Behe, myself, Wells, Meyer, Nelson, Pearcey, Gonzalez, Richards, and O'Leary. Any of you who have a fundamental problem with that position need to consider carefully whether you should be on this list at all.

Best wishes,
Bill Dembski

As an aside, I found the statement: It bears repeating that the default view of ID for this list is the position hammered out over a fifteen year period starting with Phil Johnson and moving through to Behe, myself, Wells, Meyer, Nelson, Pearcey, Gonzalez, Richards, and O'Leary to be revealing. That is independent of where ID actually falls in the spectrum, from a dishonest and profitable political movement for which Dembski is a guru to a bona fide science for which he is a groundbreaking theoretician. I am reminded of an instance when that great philosopher Foghorn Leghorn (remarking on the little genius rooster) broke the fourth wall and said: "I say, there's something yechh about a boy who don't like baseball." Well there is something yechh about someone who includes himself in a list of greats.

It also made me think of the times I met real greatness in real scientists who actually were within their rights to list themselves among the leaders of a research field. Once I wanted to hear Hans Bethe give a talk, and I wanted a good seat. I arrived at the seminar room an hour early and there was a old man with liver-spotted hands sitting at the conference table eating Sun Maid raisins from a box. After offering to share, he asked me if I was a student and what I was studying. He was kind and humble--I thought he was either a Pitt professor (I went to Carnegie Mellon; Pitt is just down the street, and often we attended one another's seminars) or one of those peculiar people who are not associated with the department but show up for interesting seminars. We talked for about thirty minutes about physics--and then one of my professors arrived. You know the ending: I was chatting with Hans Bethe. What did he not say? He did not say: "the default view for nuclear physics is the one hammered out by Rutherford, ..., myself, ..."

Why was he all alone in the seminar room? It turns out that he had told the professor sponsoring his visit that he was tired and wanted to rest before his seminar. I had interrupted his private time.

Well, being the hothead that I am, I immediately composed and submitted what would be my last post:

Your response seems to be more appropriate for scolding an apostate member of a fan club rather than moderating a list ostensibly existing for exchanging ideas on ID. For those of us who would like to see ID change direction, who feel that the approach taken by some (by no means all, for example I greatly admire how Gonzalez, for one, continues to perform actual scientific research) of the titans you mention has been hugely counterproductive (just try talking ID in a public school, it is now but a distant memory for me)--we should keep our mouths shut or else the big boys will take their ball and go play elsewhere?

Thus far, that's the message I take from your moderating. And the rather odd (so they seem to me) explanations you have posted (on *****) thereof, which included, to *****:

"Have you read Behe, Johnson, or my own work? -- I'm not asking this question rhetorically. It's precisely comments like this that have led a number of my senior colleagues to want to jump ship from ***** and start a new list. But that's not going to happen. The level of discussion on this list needs to improve. Please don't post anything so unreflective again."

Which I interpret as: be careful, or the really important folk--who have discussed it but, so far, have agreed to continue to be gracious-- might just start another list with only really smart people invited.

And when you wrote:

"I have no problem calling ID philosophy if by philosophy one understands it broadly and as originally conceived, which always included metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, logic, and natural philosophy. The latter in the 1800s was changed to "science.""

Which, with its little history lesson that nobody needed, I interpreted as: it's OK if you don't think ID has reached the level of science as long as you acknowledge that is philosophy, and that philosophy, gotcha, includes science.

And I might as well go for the trifecta and admit that I was also troubled when you wrote:

"What I'm concerned about are sneering critics who think that ID's claims to science are dishonest, confused, ignorant."

Since it leaves you with broad powers to define what reaches the level of sneering.

Oh yeah, and then there was the pledge of allegiance when we renewed our membership. I still don’t know what's up with that.

David Heddle

I soon received this email (also addressed to the list):

I asked you to take this up with me directly. Instead, you've decided to stir the pot with the whole list. I'm therefore directing ***** to suspend your account. Your case will be reviewed over the next two weeks, at which time you will either be reinstated (assuming you want to return) or removed permanently.

In the interim, until ***** actually disables your account, you may wish to resist the temptation to take some parting shots as that will make your continuation with this list still more tenuous.

A word to the wise: I'm committed to restoring a sense of proportion to this list and have no patience those who think this list is the place to redefine, or better yet neuter, ID. You are welcome to do this, but do it elsewhere.

I remember the email came just before I was off to the gym. I probably should have done nothing, a good workout always calms me down. But instead I fired back:
You can leave me off. I have no interest in being on a list where you have to affirm that the moderator walks on water.

Now, it is obvious that not everything I wrote was commendable. There is, however, one point that I want to make clear: my criticism of Dembski's mathematics came before I got kicked off this list or his blog. It would not be fair to say that suddenly I was a Dembski critic because of vengeance. A search of my blog and Panda's Thumb (and even Uncommon Descent) will reveal a uniform response on my part over the last three years: I have not read Dembski. Now my gut feeling was that what he was claiming, or at least what his champions were claiming, was impossible, but as long as I hadn't read his books I could evade questions about whether I thought he was correct. That all changed a little less than a year ago for a rather remarkable reason. I was exchanging emails (on quantum mechanics) with a Nobel Laureate quality physicist who is also a strong Christian. (I'm not going to tell you his name, you can simply choose to believe me or not.) In passing I asked him what he thought of ID. I meant cosmological ID, but only asked about "ID." He responded as if I had asked about biological ID. He words were polite (he's not a beast like I am) but they were also very clear: he thought Dembski's mathematics were, shall we say, not very laudable. That email prompted me to start reading Dembski's work, concentrating at first on the Design Inference monograph and, in that weird way that unintended consequences are, well, unintended, to this post which is now concluded.

NOTE: if you wish to make a comment on this post make it substantive. Comments that are merely insults will be deleted.

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