Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Join together to report scholarly misconduct?

Edit (9 Oct 2009): Friends and respected acquaintances have persuaded me to rebut the article of Dembski and Marks in the peer-reviewed literature, and not to fuel the "Expelled" propaganda campaign of the intelligent design movement by lodging complaints of scholarly misconduct.

In my opinion, Dembski and Marks engaged in scholarly misconduct in their article Conservation of Information in Search: Measuring the Cost of Success. I will respond by lodging complaints with the academic institutions that employ the authors. I had planned on supplying readers with contact information and encouraging them to send their own letters of complaint. Now I believe that letters with many signatories would command more respect.

At most academic institutions, there are established procedures for responding to credible allegations of scholarly misconduct by faculty members. Allegations are typically reviewed by committees comprised mostly of ordinary faculty members — people who generally want to make fair decisions. Perhaps Dembski is safe. It would be nonetheless interesting to see a "secularized" Baptist university sanction one author, and a Baptist seminary let the other off the hook.

I must emphasize that the issue is not ID per se. Deceptive manipulation of a scholarly forum to advance any socio-political agenda whatsoever is wrong. As some of you know, I actually protested Baylor University's refusal to let Bob Marks display his "Evolutionary Informatics Lab" webpages with the standard disclaimer promulgated by the American Association of University Professors. What animates me to demand academic freedom is precisely what animates me to demand academic integrity.

Technical language goes nowhere with administrators and academic integrity committees. Furthermore, people may have a hard time seeing that Dembski and Marks misconstrued Dawkins. Here are some transgressions that are relatively easy to establish:
  1. The authors analyze two closely-related computational methods without giving their conventional names, without indicating that they have been analyzed many times in the literature, and without citing prior analysis. This is egregious in light of the fact that their analyses did not appear in the paper until I explained one of the methods to Marks, provided its name, suggested analyzing it, and indicated that there were many analyses of it in the literature.
  2. The authors mathematically formalize a computational method described informally in a popular-science book by Richard Dawkins, and attribute their formal method to Dawkins. That is, they mention neither that they are disambiguating an ambiguous text, nor that their disambiguation is highly controversial. This is egregious in light of the fact that Dembski has offered elsewhere several distinct interpretations of the text, and has emphasized its ambiguity.
  3. The authors falsely attribute the term partitioned search, an apt name for their own formalization, to Dawkins. The attribution heightens the impression that they are relating straightforwardly Dawkins' precise meaning.
Speaking to motivation is tricky, but necessary, I think:
  1. The authors submitted the article to a broad-scope journal with editors unlikely to recognize methods coming from the field of evolutionary computation. They evidently did not want to draw attention to the fact that parts of the paper needed the scrutiny of specialists in evolutionary computation. One of the analyses is a rehash of old results, and the other has no apparent utility in engineering.
  2. Dembski has engaged in what he calls "cultural war" for many years, and the prominent atheist and evolutionary biologist Dawkins is his arch enemy. Dembski's socio-political ends take precedence over academic honesty in the article. He could not score a categorical hit on Dawkins without unequivocally representing Dawkins' work as something he and Marks knew how to analyze. In fact, the dubious interpretation makes for a very simple analysis. Following publication of the article, Dembski revealed his agenda on the Web:
    Our critics will immediately say that this really isn’t a pro-ID [intelligent design] article but that it’s about something else (I’ve seen this line now for over a decade once work on ID started encroaching into peer-review territory). Before you believe this, have a look at the article. In it we critique, for instance, Richard Dawkins METHINKS*IT*IS*LIKE*A*WEASEL (p. 1055). Question: When Dawkins introduced this example, was he arguing pro-Darwinism? Yes he was. In critiquing his example and arguing that information is not created by unguided evolutionary processes, we are indeed making an argument that supports ID.
    But soon after that, Dembski emphasized the ambiguity of Dawkins' description of his computational method, and decided that Dawkins used a method other than the one he and Marks analyzed — a method much harder to analyze. He also reported that he had communicated recently with Dawkins on the matter, and this brings to the fore the question of why he did not ask Dawkins for clarification prior to publication of the article. Evidently getting an unqualified "critique" of Dawkins through peer review was more important than honestly reporting that he and Marks had analyzed a mathematically convenient interpretation of Dawkins.

Some rumination

Dembski and Marks write, "Partitioned search [12] is a 'divide and conquer' procedure best introduced by example." Italicizing the term and placing a reference immediately after it is significant. By convention, this indicates that the term comes literally from the indicated source. There is, of course, no instance of "partitioned search" in reference [12], The Blind Watchmaker. Students might claim plausibly that they did not know the convention, but not a pair of highly experienced scholars.

There is utterly no way to warp Dawkins' description of how his Weasel program operated into D&M's partitioned search. Perhaps I'm underestimating the academic integrity committees. If they saw Dawkins' description of the Weasel program juxtaposed with D&M's description of partitioned search, they might sense that something's rotten in Texas.

How would an honest and responsible scholar go about disambiguating an algorithm in a popular science book? Obviously he would contact the author, if possible. Dembski has communicated with Dawkins plenty of times in the past, and has communicated with him about the Weasel program since publication of the article. Considering the controversy over the Weasel program, there was absolutely no justification for excluding Dawkins from the loop. This lends credence to the claim that Dembski and Marks chose to engage in false attribution because it served an ulterior purpose.

D&M did not know how to analyze the active information of Dawkins' algorithm, so they pinned on Dawkins an algorithm they felt was "close enough," and that they knew how to analyze. (I am sure that they did not know how to analyze Dawkins' algorithm because the article includes an analysis of a restricted form of it.) Whether partitioned search was "close enough" or not is irrelevant. The issue is that D&M had no justification for flat declaration that it was Dawkins' algorithm.

Back to the task

It would be good, I think, to mail a cover letter, a synopsis of the allegations like that I provided above, and somewhat detailed evidence. For instance, I would quote from my email to Marks, as in my last entry. It would be nice if Wesley were to provide a synopsis of Dembski's weaseling on the Weasel. I can give a succinct and simple explanation that D&M analyzed the (1,2)-ES and the (1+1)-ES, as well as a demonstration that they needed to keep reviewers from looking at prior analyses of ES's.

What I have in mind is to prepare the materials, put them on display for comments, revise, and then solicit signatures. I'd like to hear if you think many people would join in if I prepared something along the lines of what you've seen here. Should I just go it alone?


See Jeffrey Shallit's remarks on acknowledging priority at Recursivity.


  1. Hmm. I'm not convinced this is a good idea. The crimes seem pretty minor, so it might be perceived as being petty. And (as you mentioned at AtBC) it brings up the Expelled spectre. I would be uneasy about signing such a letter, because the infractions seem minor, and could easily be interpreted as a witch-hunt.

    I also wonder if the authors are trying to be honest, but have some awful blind spots. I've never met either of them, so I can't judge their character but I generally stick to Hanlon's Razor as a good explanation.

    Would a subtler tactic be to submit a response to the journal outlining these points, and if it is published, show the response to the Baylor and SWTS? At the very least, it might be worth sounding out their employers first.

  2. Bob,

    I appreciate your feedback.

    The omission of references to the prior analysis of (1,2) and (1+1) evolutionary algorithms is not stupidity, considering that analysis of the algorithms did not appear in the article until I explained the "comma" algorithm to Marks and told him that there was plenty of prior work.

    It's good to hear that the "crimes seem pretty minor" to you. Wes also recommended against filing complaints of academic dishonesty. The adage "no publicity is bad publicity" seems to be absolutely true for the ID movement. I don't want to risk generating publicity when the expected payoff is low.

    What can I say, but that I do believe that the article is academically dishonest, and that I wish I had a stronger response than words. Thanks for helping to dissuade me from making a bad decision out of frustration.

  3. IMO, it's more important to show IEEE what a embarrassingly poor paper they have published. The next edition of IEEE Transactions on Systems, Man and Cybernetics, Part A: Systems and Humans will appear in November, I suppose - I hope I'll find some reactions to R. Marks's and W. Dembski's opusculum in it...