A brief look at two comments on one ID - Creationist site
By Mark Perakh
Posted September 15, 2005
Although I avoid opening any ID sites, from time to time I
receive emails quoting certain comments posted to such sites. The other day I
received one such email from Alan Fox. In his email Alan quoted three comments
that appeared on one of Dembski's sites and relate to my essay (critical of
Dembski), which was printed in the Skeptic
magazine, v. 11, No 4, 2005. (Its full text is available online at http://www.talkreason.org/articles/Skeptic_paper.cfm.)
So I unwillingly found myself looking
at three hostile comments regarding certain points in my Skeptic essay. I shall quote here two of these comments as
they appeared in Alan's email.
One of these hostile comments was by Salvador Cordova. In
his frequent comments on Panda's Thumb (PT) Salvador tries (not fully
successfully) to restrain his apparent penchant for exaggerating his
qualifications and denigrating the objects of his assaults. In his comment on
Dembski's site -- where he is protected by the absence of counter-arguments -- he indulges in wild attacks on
Dembski's critics, including me. His comment is full of repeated claims that I
"mangled," "fumbled," and "misrepresented" Dembski's great ideas and attacked
Assertions that his critics simply "do not understand" his
concepts has been a device often used by Dembski -- see for example his "replies"
to the critique by Ellery Eels, Robert Pennock, Richard Wein, Erik Tellgren,
Eli Chiprout, Wesley Elsberry, Jeffrey Shallit, and others. I seem to be in
good company. Can it be that such a regularly employed accusation rather
reflects Dembski's (and even more so of Cordova's) inability to offer more
Perhaps Salvador is sincere in his desperate attempts to
find errors in the critique of Dembski.
It is interesting, though, that, while Dembski lets Salvador jump high in
the "defense" of his "Lord William," (which is how Cordova referred to Dembski
on PT) Dembski himself has so far never explicitly endorsed Salvador's
rants. Perhaps Dembski realizes
the abysmal level of Salvador's contentions and avoids being directly
associated with them.
Salvador's comment essentially repeats his earlier assertions
on PT, which have been answered extensively in many other posts on PT.
Therefore I will not take space here for one more demonstration of Salvador's
fallacies; they have already taken too much space on PT. Perhaps one brief comment may be in
order. Replying to my earlier comment on PT, where I wrote that I'd not curtail
Salvador's freedom to post anything he wants in my threads, Salvador wrote that
he respected me for that. If so, then, to be consistent, should he not disrespect Dembski, who deletes from his
sites any comments he dislikes?
I'll briefly discuss now the other two comments copied from
Dembski's site by Alan. Both relate to just one point in my Skeptic essay, namely one example of a
false positive produced by Dembski's explanatory filter (EF). This example
refers to a rare form of snowflakes, which appears under certain weather
conditions. Since the weather
conditions in question are very rare, the appearance of such snowflakes has a
low probability. These snowflakes also have a specific, easily recognizable
form that is the simplest kind of snowflakes ever observed. Since in this case
we have a combination of low probability with specification, the inference
prescribed by Dembski's EF is that the snowflakes in question are results of
design -- it is just one more case of a false positive.
Furthermore, according to Dembski, low probability is just
another face of complexity: the more complex the object, asserts Dembski, the
lower its probability (in my Skeptic
essay there are a number of direct pertinent quotations from Dembski). In fact,
however, the rare snowflakes in question have the simplest structure of all
known snowflakes (see the relevant references in my Skeptic essay). This
exemplifies the fallacy of Dembski's thesis, which equates complexity with low
Both hostile commenters hide their names, one using a
pseudonym ("taciturnus") and the other just a first name ("dave"). What are
these critics of my essay afraid of? Do they know that their arguments are
false? Or are they just not sure their comments make sense? Or do they hide
their names so they can hurl insults with impunity?
Let us see if their specific critical remarks regarding the
rare snowflakes have any merits.
To avoid accusations of distorting what my opponents say (if
it is at all possible, given the predilection of some of Dembski's supporters
for slandering his opponents), I'll reproduce here the full texts of the hostile
comments as quoted by Alan.
Here is the first of these comments:
After addressing Alan, the comment continues as follows:
1. "I've read
your link to Mark Perakh (Dream_Dem), and I now see what the ID defenders mean
when they imply that Mr. Perakh seems to go out of his way to misunderstand
Intelligent Design. Consider some of his remarks about specified complexity:
'I believe that the very concept
of complexity as disguised improbability is contrary to facts and logic. For
example, under certain (rare) weather conditions, an unusual triangular shape of
snowflakes can be observed.26 Unlike more common forms of snowflakes
with their intricately complex structure, these rare snowflakes have a simple
structure. As Dembski asserted,27 snow crystals' shapes are due to
necessity -- the laws of physics predetermine their appearance. However,
triangular snowflakes, while indeed predetermined by laws of physics, occur
only under certain weather conditions, which are very rare and unpredictable.
Therefore we have to conclude that the emergence of the triangular snowflakes
is a random event. This is another example where at least two causal
antecedents -- chance and law -- are in play simultaneously.
'Since the appropriate weather
conditions occur very rarely, the probability of the chance emergence of the
triangular snowflakes is very small; also, they have a uniquely specific shape.
Hence, according to the EF, these snowflakes were deliberately designed.'
"But complexity as improbability is obviously meant as
conditional improbability. Given conditions A, the probability that B will
occur is so low that we can infer design. Given whatever unusual whether
conditions you prefer, the probability that wind and rain will carve the faces
of Presidents on Mt. Rushmore is tiny. We can infer design. However, given the
right weather conditions, the probability that triangular snowflakes will occur
is high. We cannot infer design, especially since the only time we see these
snowflakes is during the unusual weather conditions that make them highly
probable. This does not seem a difficult point.
"Comment by taciturnus -- September 9, 2005 @ 7:31 am"
To start with, the example of Mt. Rushmore
is irrelevant. The Rushmore pattern has a human origin and in such cases design
inference is a well established procedure based on our familiarity with human
design and its results. This procedure has nothing to do with Dembski's EF
(which anyway is, in my view, as evinced in my Skeptic essay, a meaningless schema). In the case of
snowflakes no background knowledge of the kind we have with a human design is
available. This point has been thoroughly discussed in literature (see, for
example, the collection Why Intelligent Design Fails, edited by Young and Edis, now in its third printing
with a paperback edition forthcoming, where this point has been discussed in
Look now at taciturnus's argument
which asserts that "complexity as improbability is obviously meant as
Unfortunately for taciturnus, it is not only not "obvious" that Dembski's
schema indeed implies conditional probability, but in fact this schema does
nothing of the sort, either obviously or implicitly. Taciturnus seems to mix up two different questions. One
question is whether or not the snowflake in question was designed? The other
question is what inference follows for Dembski's schema? If we were searching
for the answer to the first question, taciturnus's notion would be reasonable:
it is indeed obvious that in the case in point there is no reason to infer
design; the appearance of the triangular snowflakes is predetermined by the
combination of proper weather conditions and laws of physics. This correct
inference is, though, done outside Dembski's EF. The answer to the second
question is that EF requires inferring design, which is a false positive.
Indeed, nowhere does Dembski's schema imply the use of conditional probability.
If we turn to Dembski's
actual writing, we find that he pays a lot of lip service to evaluating multiple
"relevant chance hypotheses," although he never himself bothers to go
beyond evaluating a single chance hypothesis that uses the uniform
distribution. Dembski's schema prescribes evaluation of probability, period. In the case of snowflakes, the overall
probability comprises two components, one random, and the other non-random. The
random component is the (low) probability of proper weather condition. The
non-random component is the (high) probability of laws of physics producing the
snowflakes in question under the proper weather condition. Obviously the random
component precedes the non-random one in the causal chain. "Taciturnus" suggest
to ignore the random component and to base the inference only on the non-random
one. Such an approach would be contrary to Dembski's schema.
Indeed, why should we base our application of EF on the conditional probability of the appearance of this type of
snowflakes under given weather condition
(which is high) when it is obvious that in the causal chain the probability of
the proper weather precedes the
probability of "physical laws producing such snowflakes"? Following Dembski's
schema, we cannot ignore the probability that is "upstream" in the causal
chain, as taciturnus suggests doing. The low value of the probability that is "upstream" overrides
the larger probability that is "downstream."
Taciturnus's correct judgment (that snowflakes in question are not designed)
is based on common sense and available background knowledge, but the question
is not about that. It is whether or not Dembski's approach yields the correct
conclusion. It does not, in part because it does not prescribe using
conditional probability -- its use is just taciturnus's common sense suggestion
rather than a feature of Dembski's thesis.
From another angle, the probability of
the rare snowflakes being conditional on weather, again, does not negate the
fact that these snowflakes have a low overall probability. Therefore Dembski's formal
thesis, if applied consistently, requires the snowflakes to be complex. But they
are simple. Taciturnus's argument
can in fact be used to argue against EF and against Dembski's thesis of
complexity being equivalent to low probability.
Unfortunately for "taciturnus" his
(her) argument fails to properly address the question at hand -- the validity of
my example of the rare snowflakes.
Here is the second hostile comment, as quoted by Alan:
snowflake example also fails because the triangular design isn't specified
beforehand. This is just another version of the arrow and the barn example. All
points on the barn are equally unlikely to be hit. A particular point on the
barn is only interesting if it has been specified before the event -- for
instance by a bullseye. (sic).
"The triangular snowflake is no more interesting than a
four-leaf clover, ball lightning, or the aurora borealis. All are rare, complex
natural events, but none of them are specified before the event. Their patterns
are reducible to being a function of the natural conditions that produced them,
rare or otherwise. All of them are surprising and remarkable, but from them no reasonble person could ever infer design.
"The idea of specificity is so fundamental to design
inferences, it's astonishing that Perakh considers this example applicable.
Bill has asked if Perakh understands the relevant math. After reading this, I'm
wondering if Perakh understands the relevant English.
"If Bill or any other ID proponent had to correct every
published essay that exhibited a basic misunderstanding of the argument, they'd
spend all their time chasing down op-eds and blog blather. "
Comment by dave -- September 9, 2005 @ 1:33 pm"
not respond to dave's remarks about my misunderstanding "relevant English," which
parrots Dembski's earlier infamous utterance -- such derogatory remarks usually are
offered when no arguments of substance are available. Let us instead look at
his argument regarding the snowflake's shape not being specified "beforehand," which,
according to "dave," shows my lack of understanding of the concept of
Before discussing dave's specific
notions, it is perhaps proper to point out that Dembski's concept of
specification has been severely critiqued by various reviewers. I have made
some modest (although rather detailed) contribution to the discussion of
Dembski's specification in my book Unintelligent Design (Prometheus Books, 2004, pp. 47-53). In my Skeptic essay I also have analyzed that concept but dave
chose not to notice that analysis. In an excellent article (which is available
online at http://www.talkreason.org/articles/eandsdembski.pdf) Elsberry and Shallit made mincemeat of Dembski's specification concept. (As could
be expected, apparently incapable of providing a cogent response to Elsberry
& Shallit's article, Dembski's camp responded with hysterical assaults like
those by Salvador Cordova, who posted a number of meaningless pieces of
"critique" baselessly accusing Elsberry and Shallit of [of course!] "misrepresenting"
Dembski's specification concept.)
Regarding dave's specific argument
(that specification must be made "beforehand"), dave may be surprised to learn
that it is contrary to Dembski's thesis. Dembski unequivocally asserts (see
Dembski's The Design Inference, page 14) that the pattern meeting the requirement of specification can be
legitimately identified after the fact. Dembski's criterion for distinguishing between
"specification" and "fabrication" is not when the pattern was identified, but whether or not it
meets what Dembski calls "detachability."
This term, explains Dembski, means that the pattern is "independent of
(It can be noted that if the
requirement for the specification to be determined "beforehand" were adopted, it
would make the entire "design inference" a la Dembski not applicable to biology. We never know
"beforehand" which pattern will have, say, a hitherto unobserved chunk of DNA,
or, say, how a hitherto unknown species of bacteria will look like. That is why
Dembski prescribes testing for "detachability" rather than for when the
specification is made).
If dave's comment, as he formulated it,
were correct, it would first apply to Dembski himself.
Recall Dembski's example illustrating
his concept of specification. (See, for example, again Dembski's The
Design Inference, where the "detachability"
is discussed in many words). A pattern may serve as a specification, says
Dembski, only if it is "detachable."
Let us see if the rare snowflakes meet this condition.
In Dembski's own example, he talks
about a heap of stones which happens to reproduce the shape of a constellation
(this example is on page 17 of Dembski's The Design Inference). When a layman sees these stones he does not
recognize the shape of a constellation so the observed shape is not
"detachable" and does not serve as a specification. If, though, an astronomer
sees the same heap of stones, he recognizes the image of a constellation (which
he has previously stored in his mind independently of the particular heap of
stones he came across) and in this case the observed pattern is "detachable"
and serves as specification.
The astronomer infers that some
intelligent agent has, by design, arranged the stones in the shape of a
constellation. He came to such a
conclusion because the shape of that constellation was antecedently familiar to
him. The astronomer did not expect "beforehand" to find these particular stones
arranged as this specific constellation.
However, the pattern he observed was "detachable" as it matched an image
he had, antecedently and independently from this particular heap of stones, stored
in his mind. Recall that all this
is Dembski's own example illustrating his concepts of "detachability" and
"specification." This is the essence of the notion that specification is
predicated on prior knowledge of the pattern -- which is a point rather
different from that made by dave. Dave avoided mentioning "detachability," which
would be a proper reference to Dembski's thesis.
Exactly the same argument applies to the
snowflakes in question. For dave the shape of the rare snowflakes is not
familiar and therefore not "detachable." Hence, for dave these snowflakes are
not "specified." However, to an expert on snowflakes the shape is well known,
so when such an expert sees those rare snowflakes, he recognizes them as
conforming to the image he has antecedently kept in his mind. The pattern is,
in this case, according to Dembski's thesis, "detachable," exactly as the
pattern of the heap of stones in Dembski's own example. Dembski's "theory"
requires inferring design equally in the case of stones and in the case of
snowflakes. This inference may
be true for the heap of stones but
is false for the triangular snowflakes, and this shows the inadequacy of
When dave correctly concludes that the
rare snowflake is not a product of design, he (like taciturnus) does so outside
of Dembski's EF, and in fact his conclusion is contrary to what EF yields. EF
yields a false positive.
Dave's comment shows his own
misunderstanding of the subject he decided to argue about.
The fact that neither hostile commenter identified in my
essay any more targets for their (fallacious) critique, besides the sole
example of the rare snowflakes, is telltale. It points to their apparently
being at a loss when confronted with the entirety of my arguments. Perhaps this
is also the reason that, absent any more visible targets for assaults, both
commenters resorted to general assertions regarding my "misunderstanding" of ID
and of Dembski's work.
If the comments by "taciturnus" and
"dave" plus the rants of Cordova are the best the ID advocates can offer in
response to my essay in the Skeptic, their case has to be relegated to the dustbin of history, to borrow
Dembski's favorite pompous expression.
I believe unbiased readers can themselves
now infer who in this debate indeed poorly understands Dembski's thesis,
"relevant English" and the super-sophisticated collections of math symbols so
loved by Dembski but evidently beyond the comprehension of some of his
I thank Wesley Elsberry and Matt Young
for taking time to read the initial draft of this piece and suggesting pithy