Should a Critic of Evolution Be Invited to Speak at a Prestigious University?

This August, Intelligent Design advocate (or should I say cdesign proponentsist) William Dembski will be giving a lecture at the University of Chicago:

Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne, who teaches there, is rightfully furious:

So Dembski is going to come here and talk to a bunch of computational scientists about how evolution can’t be right because of his No Free Lunch Theorem, which has already been debunked (see here. here, and here for the debunking). I can’t believe that my own university, proud of its reputation and academic rigor, is presenting creationism as serious science. As my correspondent noted: “WTF is happening at my alma mater?”

University of Chicago, and especially those responsible for inviting speakers to this series, you should be ashamed of yourselves! Don’t you vet your speakers.

The Computations in Science Seminar organizers — including Dembski’s Ph.D. supervisor, who invited him to the school — say that they support his lecture, arguing in one email to Coyne that “A truly liberal university must include the widest possible dialog.”

But can you really have a fair dialogue when one side is thoroughly discredited? Coyne wondered if that logic would apply to inviting a homeopath, or a holocaust denier, or a flat-Earther to give a speech.

Larry Moran, a Biochemistry professor at the University of Toronto, says Coyne is on the wrong end of this conversation (even though they both wholeheartedly accept evolution):

You can learn a lot about what people think by attending a lecture and seeing how they respond to questions and debate.

That’s what a university is all about. I also greatly enjoyed a lecture by William Dembski a few years ago. I got to meet him and I got to ask a question at his lecture. It was a very valuable experience.

Would Moran welcome other nonsense-peddlers, too? Yes he would.

I think it might be informative for history students to hear the views of a holocaust denier and I’d love to have the opportunity to challenge the views of someone who supports homeopathy. I’d even tolerate a scientist who dismisses junk DNA.

It seems like the two of them are debating somewhat different things. Moran takes a more philosophical approach — if you hold an opinion, even one that’s been repeatedly debunked, let’s hear you out and debate the matter.

Coyne is saying this is settled science, not an issue worth debating, so there’s no reason to hear what the “other side” has to say. (In his view, the Ken Ham/Bill Nye debate should never have taken place, even if you think it was ultimately an embarrassment for Creationists.)

If that’s a fair assessment, then I would side with Coyne. Given that the budget for each talk in this seminar, including travel, lodging, and honorarium, is about $1100, I think that money could be better spent on someone who could discuss an actual scientific controversy instead of a fictional one like Dembski. Let a church bring him in, not a prestigious university.

It’s worth noting that school officials aren’t presenting Dembski’s view as legitimate. But that shouldn’t matter. They’re giving him a platform and that’s what ID-proponents crave more than anything. Just as Ken Ham will be saying for the rest of his life, “Bill Nye debated me!” Dembski will be able to add a line to his resume that he was invited to give a speech at the University of Chicago. It’s irrelevant how awful that speech is and how much pushback he gets. For that reason, I’m with Coyne: I don’t know why U of C professors would invite him. He’s not bringing anything of value to the table.

I would take issue with one thing Coyne says. He believes inviting Dembski will hurt the school’s reputation. I think that’s overblown. It’s not like Harvard’s reputation was sullied when a student group brought in Ann Coulter in 2002. Hell, controversial figures speak on college campuses all the time — they even give commencement addresses — and the criticism tends to fade away quickly. This, too, will blow over soon.

It doesn’t mean people shouldn’t criticize the committee inviting Dembski, but it’s hardly going to leave a mark on campus.

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