Friday, December 14, 2007

Dembski's "Symmetry Inference"

William Dembski asks today about the Chris Comer firing:

What if someone in the same position as Chris Comer forwarded an email about a forthcoming talk by Ken Ham at a “fundamentalist church” in which he would recommend teaching creationism in public schools?
First, the right answer is "nothing". As problematic as Ken Ham is, here, it's hard to come up with a reasonable basis for firing someone for forwarding a notification of an upcoming event. I will add the caveat that it's perfectly acceptable to fire an employee for violating a direct prohibition -- I've fired people for sending out perfectly acceptable messages to customers in terms of content; they got fired because they had no authority to speak for the company in said messages, and even though they said nothing wrong in those emails, the potential liability for us had they said the wrong thing was very large. They were repeatedly and clearly instructed not to engage in such communications, but did it anyway.

Insubordination, plain and simple.

To the extent that simple insubordination is at the heart of Comer's dismissal, I'm fantastically uninterested in this story. Too bad for her, if so. Lesson learned, hopefully. But Dembski isn't appealing to that idea here, and is instead apparently hoping to justify the ostensible injustice here by suggesting that if the tables were turned, the "Darwinists" would now be calling for Comer's dismissal.

But the apparent symmetry Dembski sees here, the "symmetry inference" he's making in imagining an email alert going out for a YEC event from someone in Comer's position, isn't a sound inference. These are not two sides of the same coin.

Say what you want about the Center for Inquiry in terms of their agenda. Dembski describes them as a "virulently atheistic organization", and from what little I know about them, there's not much to dispute in that, beyond Dembski's typically emotionally-loaded language ("virulently" has got to be bad, doncha know). In any case, I don't think any "virulence" matters, so long as they are willing to affirm the integrity and value of methodological naturalism -- the 'operating guidelines' for science as it is effectively practiced.

And that's the difference. Ken Ham doesn't have a different scientific view. He has an anti-scientific view. Dembski is hoping to impose a kind of "philosophical relativism" here, and the implication in his idea is that, ultimately, there is no method to science, and that it is all just so much politics and subjectivity. But I'd be willing to wager that for all of the Center for Inquiry's "virulence" in their metaphysical outlook (if they do indeed promote one), they would emphatically affirm the importance of methodological naturalism as essential to the succesful pursuit of scientific inquiry.

Ken Ham, on the other hand, sees methodological naturalism as the problem itself, rather than the solution, just as Dembski does. That's what fundamentally distinguishes the practical effects of an email alert about a Center for Inquiry event, and an email alert about an upcoming speech by Ken Ham. The former is broadly compatible with the existing practice of science itself, and the latter is not, not even nearly.

Remember, I wouldn't countenance the firing of a person in Comer's position even if they had forwarded an email alert concerning an upcoming Ken Ham speech, or a long series of YEC-friendly alerts and notes. Insubordination is good grounds for dismissal, but none of the email alerts we're considering here begin to rise to the level of a dismissal. But let's identify Dembski's equation of these two email alerts -- one about the Center for Inquiry, the other about Answers In Genesis for what it is: an attempt, again, and as always, to erode the practice of science itself.

Whatever "evangelizing" the Center for Inquiry might undertake, they can affirm and support the practice of science, as it occurs in the curriculum of the school textbooks for the district. The evangelizing of Ken Ham has a completely different agenda: to de-legitimize and marginalize science itself, and to assert their own authority (in the name of God, of course) over the scientific enterprise. Fortunately, things are so lopsided at this point in terms of evidence against Ken Ham that there is a diminishing threat, even in this. The only people who listen to Ken Ham aren't the least bit concerned about science qua science anyway. Anyone approaching this with their eyes open won't be buying any of it.

Ken Ham cannot affirm the science textbooks and curriculum of Comer's school district. And because of that, the "Ken Ham" alert from Comer would be more than "non-neutral", it would be actively subversive of the schools position on science and its practice. So, I know Dembski is asking his question rhetorically, but the real answer is: if it happened, Comer should not be dismissed, but we would reasonably wonder about her basic competency in the areas of science, were we to learn that she's promoting the ideas of Ken Ham. Not a firing offense, and maybe not an offense at all, but a signal that somewhere along the way, the system failed to locate a competent steward for its Director of Science position.

We'd be troubled to learn that the Attorney General didn't believe in civil rights for blacks or minorities. Or that a sitting judge on the bench neither knew the law or approved of the concept of American jurisprudence. A "Director of Science" promoting Ken Ham would signal the same kind of problem, a basic hostility to the enterprise they are trusted to promote and develop.

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