Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Down in the Quotemine

Bill Dembski is intellectually dishonest. I don't level claims like that lightly, and as something of an intellectual, that's one of the harsher insults in my quiver. At his blog, he discusses, and exemplifies creationist problems in Quoting, Misquoting, Quote-Mining. He begins with this extended quote, from On Methuselah's Trail: Living Fossils and the Great Extinctions by Peter Douglas Ward, the italicized part of which he published in an article:

The seemingly sudden appearance of skeletonized life has been one of the most perplexing puzzles of the fossil record. How is it that animals as complex as trilobites and brachiopods could spring forth so suddenly, completely formed, without a trace of their ancestors in the underlying strata? If ever there was evidence suggesting Divine Creation, surely the Precambrian and Cambrian transition, known from numerous localities across the face of the earth, is it. (p. 29)
Reading the italicized part, you'd think that Peter Ward was some sort of skeptic of evolution. Reading the whole paragraph, it looks like a prelude to explaining why that sentence is wrong. But that's beside the point.

The point is, he manages to spin a nice, juicy blog post out of people objecting to that. Here's what he says about it.
Pretty convincing indicator that the Cambrian explosion poses a challenge to conventional evolutionary theory, wouldn’t you say? Note that this is not a misquote: I indicate clearly that Ward does not support ID and there’s sufficient unedited material here to make clear that he really is saying that the Cambrian explosion poses a challenge to conventional evolutionary theory.

You’d think, therefore, that the evolutionary community might be grateful to evolution critics for drawing their attention to this problem, treating it as an incentive to get the lead out and figure out just what happened during the Cambrian. But that’s not what happens. Rather, evolution critics are charged with “quote mining,” misrepresenting the true state of evolutionary theory by focusing on a few scattered problems rather than toeing the party line and admitting that evolution is overwhelmingly confirmed.
Gary Hurd and Dave Mullenix posted a long article at the Panda's Thumb analyzing several quotes which out of their original context, can be spun as criticism of evolution. This is called "quote mining."

When Hurd and Mullenix looked at the rest of the chapter the original quote came from, it had these paragraphs:
Until almost 1950 the absence of metazoan fossils older than Cambrian age continued to puzzle evolutionists and earth historians alike. Other than the remains of single-celled creatures and the matlike stromatolites, it did indeed look as if larger creatures had arisen with a swiftness that made a mockery of Darwin’s theory of evolution. This notion was finally put to rest, however, by the discovery of the Ediacarian and Vendian fossil faunas of the latest Precambrian age. (p. 35) …

The long accepted theory of the sudden appearance of skeletal metazoans at the base of the Cambrian was incorrect: the basal Cambrian boundary marked only the first appearance of relatively large skeleton-bearing forms, such as the trilobites and brachiopods, rather than the first appearance of skeletonized metazoans. Darwin would have been satisfied. The fossil record bore out his conviction that the trilobites and brachiopods appeared only after a long period of evolution of ancestral forms. (pp. 36-37)
Hurd and Mullenix comment:

So, a paleontologist that Dembski accepts as authoritative (else why quote him?) stated plainly that Darwin’s concern about the fossil record has been satisfied in the same section of the same chapter that Dembski earlier quoted. Recall that it was this concern that Dembski claims “Darwinists” dodge. There is no acceptable excuse for Dembski not to have read and understood Ward’s clear meaning. And, for Dembski to have used Ward’s opening rhetorical flourish as authoritative while denying his obvious meaning expanded throughout the chapter is at best hypocritical.
I left a comment at his blog saying all that, and pointing out his failure to address the substantive claim that he should have known that Ward was leading with a counterfactual, or quoted the book without reading it, and neither is acceptable. Nor did Dembski respond to the other examples which Hurd and Mullenix offered.

I asked whether that failure to respond to the substantive issues was an acceptance of those substantive issues.

I checked back a couple hours later. I hoped he would have responded to the comment; he'd explain his position, I'd clarify mine, and we'd do the thing smart people do when we disagree. So I went, looked, looked again and couldn't find my comment. It had disappeared. Rather than responding to the claims the second time they were raised, and raised directly to him, he chose to remove the comment.

That's dishonest. I've never had cause to delete a comment from this blog. I read every comment, and sometimes I think a comment is wrong. But I respond to the comment, and if the point is broad enough, I blog it.

I can see deleting comments with offensive language. I can see deleting off topic comments. I can't see deleting comments which are critical, but directly address the topic. I don't know what to call that except intellectually dishonest. Quotemining is intellectually dishonest because it misrepresents ideas and other people's intellectual effort. Deleting comments is dishonest because it squelches debate, in the hope that eliminating the comment will eliminate the argument. This is reification, the fallacy of taking an abstract idea (my criticism) to be a concrete thing (my comment), which can, like all concrete things, be tossed out.

His claim to fame is his intellectual contributions. I think his contributions are weak and questionbegging, but that's the sort of thing intellectuals can go 'round and 'round on. They can only do that if the discussion is intellectually honest. There are simple rules, and Dembski consistently and knowingly violates those rules.

No one should take him seriously. If he ever has something real to contribute, he should whisper it to an honest person who will vet his ideas, and separate the dishonesty from the honesty. He is either incapable or unwilling to do that.