to Dembski's Accusations
By Jeffrey Shallit
Posted July 14, 2005
In a recent blog entry, William Dembski alleges I am guilty of various and
sundry offenses, but avoids once again answering my
critiques of his work. I doubt his smokescreen will convince anyone
except the usual sycophants, but in case anyone takes his bluster seriously,
I'll make a response.
1. He claims I have "harass[ed] anyone who endorses [his] work".
I categorically reject this charge of harassment. (A lawyer acquaintance
of mine informs me the charge is probably actionable.) Here's what
What I have done is to send copies of my critique to several people who have
endorsed Dembski's work, and I also asked some endorsers if they thought they
had the mathematical training needed to arrive at a thorough assessment of his
claims. (Some, such as Senator Rick Santorum, or Robert P. George, clearly do not.)
Most of the Dembski endorsers never replied. With some, such as Andrew
Ruys at Sydney (whom Dembski alluded to but did not name) I have had spirited
and enjoyable e-mail conversations. Not a single endorser ever asked me to
stop contacting them or has expressed any objection to my having contacted
With respect to the "mathematician at Oxford" that Dembski refers to, that
could be John Roche. Once again, I had a pleasant conversation with him by
e-mail. Not only that, he agreed that I had made some good points and that
my critique was serious and intended to ask Dembski about it.& I never
heard any more from him. I have had no indication from him that he felt
our good-natured correspondence constituted "harassment"; to the contrary, he
generously thanked me for my comments.
Or perhaps the "mathematician at Oxford" was John Lennox. He is listed
on ISCID as a "fellow", which means he is someone who has "distinguished
[himself] for [his] work in complex systems". I know of Lennox's work in
group theory, but I had not read any papers of his on "complex systems", so I
wrote to him to ask where I could find them. He replied that he had none,
and that perhaps someone at ISCID was a bit too enthusiastic in labeling him as
an expert in complex systems. Now it is years later and he is still
described in the same way on the ISCID page. Professor Lennox never
complained to me that he saw my question as harassment.
Of course, even if I had harassed supporters of Dembski, that would
not negate my critique.
And isn't it the pot calling the kettle black? For years now Dembski
has sent unsolicited email to many of his critics. If sending unsolicited
email about intelligent design is harassment, Dembski's anti-harassment campaign
should begin by examining the mote in his own eye.
2. Dembski claims my "criticisms tend to focus on trivialities".
This is wishful thinking. My criticisms go to the very heart of Dembski's
claims. For example, together with Elsberry, I dispute that Dembski's
"specification" is a coherent concept; I point out the inconsistent ways Dembski
has chosen probability distributions, in order to make the outcome (designed
versus not designed) fall the ways he wants; and I point our significant flaws
in the proof of his bogus "Law of Conservation of Information". These are
not trivialities; they are the essence of his argument.
As an example of a "triviality", Dembski writes "[Shallit] spent three years
trying to show that a quote widely attributed to Schopenhauer that I cited in my
work was not actually written by Schopenhauer." This is extremely
misleading. I began researching the origins of the bogus Schopenhauer
quote long before Dembski used it. I became interested in it because I had
serendipitously run across it in many different contexts, attributed to many
different people. Furthermore, the quote is often used by advocates of
fringe beliefs as justification for their work. I consulted many people in
my research of this quotation, including Schopenhauer experts. All agree
that Schopenhauer never said what Dembski claims, although he did say something
vaguely along those lines.
I flagged the quotation as bogus in an e-mail message to Dembski in May
2002. He seemed uninterested, replying with a three-word answer:
"Prove me wrong." But of course I don't have the burden of proof here;
Dembski is hawking the quotation and so he has the burden of proof to verify
it. Quoting some website that does not give any original citation of
Schopenhauer's work does not fulfill the burden of proof. I pointed out to
Dembski that my forthcoming letter in Skeptic magazine would contain
more details. None of this interested Dembski, who then continued to use
the bogus quotation in The Design Revolution.
Where I come from, making sure that the quotations you cite are really due to
the person to whom you attribute them is called scholarship, and it is
respected, not sneered at.
For more details about the Schopenhauer quote, see The Panda's Thumb weblog.
3. Dembski claims "As for some number about which he keeps harping that
I miscalculated in my book No Free Lunch, it turns out that when it is
calculated correctly, it makes my case even more strongly." This is a
blatant falsehood. The number I am referring to is on page 297 of No
Free Lunch. On that page Dembski claims that the perturbation
probability is 10-288, whereas the correct calculation gives about
10-223. This means Dembski is off by 65 orders of magnitude in
the wrong direction; in other words, his error makes the flagellum even
more improbable than his absurd scenario suggests. Fixing this
error would make his case weaker, not stronger.
Granted, anyone can make an error in mathematical calculation; I have done so
myself on occasion. My point is the following: any scientist who
made an error of 65 orders of magnitude in a scientific paper would feel
compelled to issue an erratum. Why has Dembski never done so? Along
those lines, why is it that No Free Lunch has no errata page? By
contrast, my two books have readily-available errata pages.
4. Dembski takes me to task because I have not corrected mathematical
errors in other people's work. This is, of course, completely irrelevant
to my criticism of Dembski's work, and in any event but I have often criticized
other people's errors, as a glance at my reviews in Mathematical Reviews
will show. And since I have not even read the book to which he alludes
(Simon Conway Morris' Life's Solution), how can I possibly be criticized
for not correcting an error in it?
5. Dembski labels me "obsessive" for criticizing his work (and also
repeats the defamatory charge of harassment). It seems the critic of
intelligent design cannot win. If the bogus claims of intelligent
designers are ignored, proponents insist their arguments are so strong that they
cannot be answered. If ID claims are addressed, but not in great
detail, Dembski dismisses the critiques as "uncharitable" or because they do not "engage my technical work". Finally, if ID claims are
refuted point-by-point, Dembski calls the refuter an "Internet stalker" or "inhabiting a fantasy life" or "obsessive". Contrast this behavior with Dembski's claim
that "I always learn more from my critics than from the people who
think I'm wonderful." If that's true, it's a strange way for Dembski
to show his appreciation.
Of course, the issue is not whether I am "obsessive" but whether my critique
is correct. Dembski offers no reason to doubt that it is indeed
6. Dembski charges that I have engaged in conduct that is "frankly
unethical". His only example is his claim that I wrote to Michael Ruse
"asking that an article of his be inserted in the book [Debating Design]
without my knowledge". This claim is simply false; I did not do
What I did do was express to Ruse my confidential worry that if
I were to submit my paper with Elsberry for the Dembski-Ruse volume, that
Dembski would find some way to keep it out and thus achieve two wins: he would
know my arguments before they were published, and he would keep the article from
being published. At no time did I ask that the article be inserted
without Dembski's knowledge. Ruse, ever the absent-minded professor, replied
to my letter and accidentally copied Dembski —- not "appropriately" as Dembski
claimed —- and Ruse later apologized profusely to me for this gaffe. Ruse
even offered to drop out of his collaboration with Dembski to atone for his
What's so strange about Dembski airing this episode in public is that soon
after the incident of the accidentally-forwarded email, Dembski and I spoke on
the phone about it. At the time, he accepted my explanation that my intent
was not to have the article inserted behind his back, and he also
accepted my apology for denigrating him to his co-author Ruse, something I
should not have done. I assumed the incident was over. It is now
very surprising to see Dembski's revisionist history of the incident being put
forth as a way to justify ignoring my critique of his work. This is a
classic example of the ad hominem fallacy: Elsberry and Shallit's
critique is wrong because Dembski claims Shallit once did something
7. In order to avoid answering my criticisms, Dembski uses the ploy
that my critiques are out-of-date, since he has recently written two new papers
on intelligent design. Sorry, but that dog won't hunt. I am glad to
see that Dembski has now repudiated his own bogus account of "specification",
but there are still many other claims he has not withdrawn. The ball is
still in his court, and he has not responded.
8. Finally, Dembski claims that I am "making a name for [myself] by
parasitizing [Dembski's] work". This is hardly a credible charge,
considering that my work in mathematics and computer science is well-known and
respected, consisting of approximately 80 peer-reviewed papers and two books
(with a third accepted for publication). The preponderance of my scholarly
work makes no mention of Dembski and his claims.
In summary, Dembski's "response" has addressed none of the issues Elsberry
and I have raised.
Originally posted at The Panda's Thumb.