Dembski, Marks and peer review

Bill Dembski appears to have been busy and 2009 appears to be the year in which he finally began to publish in the peer reviewed literature. You’ll remember his infamous comment from 2001 regarding publication in peer reviewed journals:

I’ve just gotten kind of blase about submitting things to journals where you often wait two years to get things into print. And I find I can actually get the turnaround faster by writing a book and getting the ideas expressed there. My books sell well. I get a royalty. And the material gets read more. [Chronicle of Higher Education, December 21, 2001]

Dembski has certainly been writing books (and one assumes getting royalties) – he has produced at least ten books this decade alone.

With that antipathy to normal scholarly outlets (at least with regards math and science) in mind, it is interesting to note that Dembski (and, Robert Marks, his buddy at the “Evolutionary Informatics Laboratory“) has managed to publish four papers this year:

  1. “Life’s Conservation Law: Why Darwinian Evolution Cannot Create Biological Information” in Bruce L. Gordon and William A. Dembski, eds., The Nature of Nature: Examining the Role of Naturalism in Science (Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2009).
  2. “Conservation of Information in Search: Measuring the Cost of Success,” IEEE Transactions on Systems, Man and Cybernetics A, Systems & Humans, vol.39, #5, September 2009, pp.1051-1061.
  3. “Bernoulli’s Principle of Insufficient Reason and Conservation of Information in Computer Search,” Proceedings of the 2009 IEEE International Conference on Systems, Man, and Cybernetics. San Antonio, TX, USA – October 2009, pp. 2647-2652.
  4. “Evolutionary Synthesis of Nand Logic: Dissecting a Digital Organism,” Proceedings of the 2009 IEEE International Conference on Systems, Man, and Cybernetics. San Antonio, TX, USA – October 2009, pp. 3047-3053.

Paper #1 is in the proceedings of an ID conference that occurred in Baylor in 2000. (I wasn’t aware that Marks was involved with ID back then as his association seems only to have started in the mid-part of this decade. I thus don’t know whether this paper was given at the conference or whether Dembski used his editorial privilege to get the paper included – I suspect the latter.) The proceedings were published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a conservative group that “was founded in 1953 to further in successive generations of American college students a better understanding of the economic, political, and moral principles that sustain a free and humane society.” Even the most charitable reader of Dembski’s body of work has to agree that ISI is hardly a suitable outlet for studies in information theory or biological engineering which Dembski claims real biology to be a branch of:

If I ever became the president of a university … I would dissolve the biology department and divide the faculty with tenure that I couldn’t get rid of into two new departments: those who know engineering and how it applies to biological systems would be assigned to the new ‘Department of Biological Engineering’; the rest, and that includes the evolutionists, would be consigned to the new ‘Department of Nature Appreciation’ (didn’t Darwin think of himself as a naturalist?).

The best that can be said about paper #2 is that at least it appears in a peer-reviewed journal albeit one devoted to issues unrelated to biological evolution. IEEE Transactions on Systems, Man and Cybernetics A, Systems & Humans is devoted to

[t]he fields of systems engineering and human machine systems: systems engineering includes efforts that involve issue formulation, issue analysis and modeling, and decision making and issue interpretation at any of the lifecycle phases associated with the definition, development, and implementation of large systems. It also includes efforts that relate to systems management, systems engineering processes, and a variety of systems engineering methods such as optimization, decision making, modeling, and simulation. Human machine systems includes cognitive ergonomics, system test and evaluation, and human information processing concerns in systems and organizations

One could perhaps argue that this journal is a suitable outlet as it deals with the issue of optimization, however that would commit the mistake of considering selection to be a process that leads to optimization (it isn’t). In any case, reaction to the paper has hardly been positive and, given the outlet, it is unlikely to influence theoretical biology in any way and I’m willing to bet that five years from now will not see a single positive citation of this paper in the relevant literature.

The less said about papers 3 & 4 the better. They look impressive, appearing as they do in the proceedings of an international conference. To find out more, I asked a number of colleagues within bioengineering about the status of papers that appear in these conferences. As one commented, “the peer review is pretty much a yay/nay affair. You will get either an acceptance or a rejection, and then, depending on the meeting, will be ‘published’ online and on CD … these do not generally get printed.” Another noted that the status of these papers was a little above an abstract and less than a published paper when considering tenure files. In other words, what we have here is a classic example of papers that appear to be “the real deal” but actually received minimal review. The peanut gallery is unlikely to realize that, of course.

Given the above, it is clear that this year did not bring anything new regarding the publication record of either Dembski or the ID community as a whole. However, we can expect ID supporters to act like a major breakthrough occurred in 2009.


6 thoughts on “Dembski, Marks and peer review

  1. Pingback: Another ID publishing triumph « a simple prop

  2. Genetic algorithms use evolution by selection to optimise solutions to various engineering and other real-world problems. They (under the heading “evolutionary computation”) are even a category of interest in Dembski’s fave conference/journal, but vaguely enough that there would be few reviewers who’ve ever used them.

    The trick is, of course, that there are a *lot* of simplifications in GAs compared to biological evolution, so you’ve got to be fairly careful to avoid picking up an overly teleological/progressive understanding of evolution whilst you’re using them.

  3. I’ve always been amused by Dembski’s “kind of blase” remark, given that at the time he made it he had exactly one paper (in a stats journal) published in the peer reviewed literature.

    Joel wrote

    Genetic algorithms use evolution by selection to optimise solutions to various engineering and other real-world problems.

    That’s not quite true. Writing as one who has used GAs in real-world contexts for nearly 20 years, I suggest that GAs are used to find adequate solutions to those kinds of problems. In general we have no way of knowing if the solutions to complicated problems found by GAs are optimal, but merely that they’re good enough for the purposes of the exercise. Evolution, whether biological or applied in GAs, is not an optimizing process, it’s a satisficing process.

  4. Pingback: Critique of the Dembski/Marks papers « a simple prop

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