Here is the third part of the continuation of the interview that was begun on Saturday's blog post. TBS is The Best Schools' interviewer in bolded green. WD is William Dembski in black.
The last blog post ended with Dembski revealing that: "In 1999, I could still get a job in the mainstream academy on the basis of my work in The Design Inference. By the fall of 2000, my career was toast..."
WD: When one has had to deal with the vilification and marginalization that I have, it’s important to have friends and to know who they are. The Discovery Institute (and by that I mean both its fellows and its administrators) has been my best friend these last 15 years. They’ve been there whenever I’ve needed them. They’ve been my most engaging conversation partners. And we’ve had a commonality of purpose.
The Discovery Institute’s founding dates back to the early ’90s. It was started as a high-tech and public-policy think tank. George Gilder (left) was one of the key people providing it with vision. In the mid-’90s, Steve Meyer came on their radar, and the director, Bruce Chapman, decided to establish a program to promote intelligent design. Think of the Discovery Institute as an incubator for various initiatives. Well, the ID initiative quickly became Discovery Institute’s main initiative and the one for which it is best known.
When Meyer became the director of the newly founded Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture (subsequently simplified to the Center for Science and Culture), he included me among its initial, fully funded fellows. This was a godsend. I was newly married, and the job market was tough in philosophy at the time. Coming on board with Discovery allowed me to pursue research in ID full-time. It made a huge difference to my subsequent research.
I stayed on as a full-time Discovery fellow until Baylor hired me in early 2000. But in the intervening twelve years, they’ve provided lots of support, both tangible and intangible. As it is, I’m leaving my present post at Southwestern Seminary and returning as a full-time fellow of Discovery later this year (2012). This will allow me to redouble my efforts at developing ID’s scientific research program.
Throughout the years, my role with Discovery has been to do heavy lifting connected with ID, developing intelligent design’s theoretical underpinnings. This has meshed nicely with work of other Discovery fellows.
The Discovery Institute has been absolutely indispensable to the success of the ID movement. Without it, most of us would have ended up as road kill.
WD: The quote needs context. I’ve also written that intelligent design, besides being a scientific program, has a theological dimension, in trying to understand divine action, and a cultural dimension, in trying to overturn naturalism. So intelligent design is a number of things. But at its core, it is a scientific program. Indeed, unless there is good science to back it up, all the cultural and theological superstructures that people build on it will be in vain.
As for why religious believers tend to be associated with design, I could turn the question around. If Darwinian evolution is strictly scientific, then why is that field so heavily populated with atheists? In one survey of around 150 prominent evolutionary biologists, only two were religious believers (as I recall, Will Provine was behind this survey). I see a scientific core to both intelligent design and Darwinian evolution. And I see no merit in questioning their scientific status by the company they keep. The character of the proposals that both approaches make is what really ought to count.
But why, then, have so many scientific bodies turned against ID? I recall speaking at a symposium at Grove City College back in 2007, and University of Wisconsin historian of science Ron Numbers mentioning that over 100 professional scientific societies had issued formal denunciations of intelligent design. It’s probably more by now.
I’ve been unimpressed with these denunciations. In every case, they have seemed to me politically motivated, attempting to ensure that the professional society doesn’t lose face should some of its wayward members be perceived as sympathizing with ID. I recall the AAAS denunciation of ID. I was a member at the time, though I let my membership lapse subsequently. When my colleagues inquired into who was behind their denunciation and what materials they had read that convinced them to issue it, it became clear that the materials were unread and the denouncers didn’t understand what they were denouncing.
As for more scientists coming on board with ID if it were legitimate, I think this question misses the point. The question is not legitimacy, but incentives. There are no incentives for coming on board with ID save that one thinks it offers some interesting ideas and true insights. There is no federal funding for ID research. If it’s known that you accept intelligent design and you’re in the mainstream academy, you can expect your career to be derailed. Support ID and expect some pain.
On the other hand, if you denounce intelligent design, you score points. Think of Judge Jones (right) in the Dover v. Kitzmiller case. After ruling against ID in 2005, he was voted one of 2005’s ten most sexy geeks by Wired magazine. Time magazine voted him one of the 100 most important thinkers of 2005. And the last I heard, he had been awarded four honorary doctorates (I’ve confirmed two of them). Jones’s claim to fame prior to Dover was not expertise in the theoretical underpinnings of evolutionary biology, but rather heading the Pennsylvania liquor commission.
I could recount case after case of mediocre academics who have done well for themselves (tenure, named professorships, etc.) by denouncing ID. And I can recount case after case of very bright individuals whose careers have been derailed for supporting, or even showing sympathy toward, ID. The documentary Expelled demonstrates this last point.
WD: The documentary came out in the spring of 2008 and most of the footage was taken the year earlier. I was therefore called in as an information resource person—in the few spots I have in the movie, that’s what I do, i.e., provide background information. I could well have been one of the “expelled,” but my story with Baylor goes back to 2000 and the producers were looking for more recent narratives.
I would give the documentary a B, certainly not an A. It effectively underscores the opposition that proponents of intelligent design face in the academy. Some of the individual cases recounted pack a nice punch. And the “exit interview” of Richard Dawkins by Ben Stein is classic. Stein gets Dawkins to admit that ID might be legitimate, so long as the designer is not God but a space alien who evolved by Darwinian means. I almost always show that clip in my public presentations of ID. Indeed, Dawkins gives away the store in those two minutes.
But the documentary had some weaknesses. The seven or so minutes devoted to the Nazis and their assimilation of Darwinian theory and its basis in the holocaust seemed misplaced. Not that there isn’t a connection, but bringing up the Nazis invariably causes the temperature to rise and the train of an argument to be lost. Far better would have been to use those seven minutes to recount the record of accomplishment of intelligent design. This, to me, was the biggest weakness of the movie. So, ID is marginalized and its proponents vilified. But what has it accomplished to show that it doesn’t deserve that treatment? This needed to be spelled out.
I also understand that the producers mismanaged their funds. Expelled was to lead to a national reaction, with an active website from which people could learn more. The weekend that the documentary opened in theaters, the website went dormant—the producers had run out of funds. I think the film could have done much better at the box office with some more careful editing and refocusing of the material. And its impact, even as it is, would have been much greater if the intended support structures, such as the website, had been fully functioning.
Even so, now that the film is out on DVD, I keep hearing from people who’ve seen me in it (some from my distant past). On balance, I think it’s had a positive impact in alerting people to the controversy over intelligent design.
WD: The short of it is that Baylor hired me to start an intelligent design think-tank, the Michael Polanyi Center, we put on a tremendously successful conference, and three days after the conference the faculty senate voted 27–2 to shut the center down. Not immediately, but a few months later, the Baylor administration acceded to the faculty senate’s wishes.
When I protested the center’s dissolution, I was fired as director from a center that had already ceased to exist. This, at Baylor—an ostensibly Christian institution. But in fact, the science faculty at Baylor were probably more Darwinian than their secular counterparts, having to prove that they were as “reliable” in their science as those outside.
The whole story is available online, arranged chronologically in a series of news articles: “The Rise and Fall of Baylor University’s Michael Polanyi Center.” If I had it to do again, I would never have gone to Baylor. But the past is past. It’s all there. It made national news. And Baylor got a black eye for its failure to respect freedom of thought and expression. But massive institutions like Baylor can handle a bit of battering. Private individuals who get chewed up by them are less fortunate.
The bottom line is that ID remains without the sort of institutional support that could accelerate its research and acceptance. I give the Darwinists credit here for their implacable opposition to ID. The Polanyi Center was the first and remains the last ID center at any college or university. It’s a sad commentary, not just on higher education, but on Christian higher education specifically.
One of the main lessons I’ve drawn from this is that most of the academic world, Christian included, is not so much concerned with truth as with fitting in and looking good. Perhaps I should have known that from the start. After the Polanyi Center closed, so too did much of the sympathy toward and curiosity about ID. In many people’s minds, ID was no longer a winner, and people like to be associated with a winner. We saw the same phenomenon a few years later with the Dover trial.
But history teaches that truth has little to do with winning and losing. Christ—the one who calls himself “the way, the truth, and the light”— is hardly a picture of victory on the Cross. So, I never lose heart.
For me personally, the Baylor episode has been better in the aftermath than in its unfolding at the time. Lots of people rallied to me. And I gained many valuable conversation partners. I had enough visibility and support so that I could land on my feet. But it could easily have turned out worse.
As for the ramifications of this incident for our culture as a whole, I don’t want to read too much into this. I don’t think it should be read as a decisive battle that changes the course of a war. Rather, I would see it as emblematic of the corruption that had existed in the academy already. This incident merely underscored the degree to which secular ideology was and remains entrenched in the academy.