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A Presentation Without Arguments
How William Dembski defeats skepticism, or does he?
By Mark Perakh
Created on June 22, 2002. First Posted July 2, 2002.
Updated July 3, 2002
Starting on June 20, 2002 and through June 23, the 4th World
Conference of Skeptics took place in Burbank, CA. Its main organizer in the USA
was CSICOP, which stands for Committee for the Scientific Investigation of
Claims of the Paranormal. Although the forum in question was designed as a
meeting of skeptics, whose participants are all squarely on the side of
genuine science and opponents of all incarnations of creationism regardless of
the disguises the latter employs (such as Intelligent Design, Irreducible
Complexity, etc) one not quite common feature of that meeting's program was that
its organizers invited two prominent proponents of modern modifications of
creationism, William Dembski and Paul Nelson, to give talks and to defend their
views in an open dispute with two opponents of the anti-evolution movement,
Wesley Elsberry and Kenneth Miller. I cannot remember a single conference
of creationists wherein the opponents of creationism were scheduled to give
talks in an open discussion.
The proponents of creationism sometimes accuse their detractors of being
doctrinaire adherents of anti-religious bias whose motivation is not pursuing
the truth but assaulting the religious faith. Although this may be not the
most important point, still it seems worth mentioning that both Elsberry and
Miller have asserted that they are not atheists. Professor of biology
Miller is a faithful Catholic, and Elsberry, while vigorously defending the
theory of evolution, has also said that he is a "theistic evolutionist."
Hence, both Dembski and Nelson were given a chance to argue in favor of their
position using arguments of substance, based on facts rather than on ideology,
in a dispute with opponents who had no reason to assault Dembski's and Nelson's
In this brief essay I will discuss only the presentation by Dembski.
The text of Dembski's presentation  is notable by the almost complete
absence of any arguments relevant to the gist of the dispute between ID
advocates, like he himself, and the opponents of that theory. Indeed, the
only instance of Dembski's touching on the substance of the dispute seems to be
a paragraph on page 4 in  where Dembski mentions his term of Specified
Complexity and unequivocally defines it as a synonym for "specified
improbability." Of course, there is nothing new in that statement.
Dembski's interpretation of complexity as "disguised improbability" was
expressed by him in various forms in many of his articles and books (for
example, in [2,3]). This interpretation has been criticized more than once as
being contrary to logic and to the accepted mathematical notion of complexity
(see the partial list of references at the end of this essay). Dembski's
statement illustrates once again his disdainful dismissal of all and every
criticism directed at his work. Dembski does not bother to offer any reply to
the critique of his interpretation of complexity and steadfastly adheres to his
concept which is viewed by many critics as deficient.
Continuing in the same vein, Dembski repeats his thesis, suggested by him
many times before, that what he calls "specified complexity" is a necessary
indicator of design. The fallacy of that statement was demonstrated more than
once (for example in [4,5]). Indeed, consider an example discussed several times
before. Imagine a pile of pebbles found on a river shore. Usually each of them
has an irregular shape, its color varying over its surface, and often its
density also varying over its volume. There are no two pebbles which are
identical in shape, color and density distribution. I guess even Dembski would
not argue that the irregular shape, color and density distribution of a
particular pebble resulted from intelligent design, regardless of how complex
these shapes and distributions may happen to be. Each pebble formed by chance.
Now, what if among the pebbles we find one which has a perfectly spherical
shape, with an ideally uniform distribution of color and density? Not too
many people would deny that this piece in all likelihood is a product of design.
However, it is much simpler than any other pebble, if, of course, complexity is
defined in a logically consistent manner rather than in Dembski's idiosyncratic
way. A logically consistent definition of complexity is given, for example, in
the algorithmic theory of randomness-probability-complexity (and is often
referred to as Kolmogorov complexity). Kolmogorov complexity of a
perfectly spherical piece of stone is much lower than it is for any other pebble
having irregular shape and non-uniform distribution of density and color.
Indeed, to describe the perfectly spherical piece one needs a very simple
program (or algorithm), actually limited to just one number for the sphere's
diameter, one number for density and a brief indication of color. For a piece of
irregular shape, the program necessarily must be much longer, as it requires
many numbers to reproduce the complex shape and the distributions of density and
of color. This is a very simple example of the fallacy of Dembski's thesis
according to which design is indicated by "specified complexity."
Actually, in this example (as well as in an endless number of other situations)
it is simplicity which seems to point to design while complexity seems to
indicate the chance as the antecedent cause of the item's characteristics.
That is about all Dembski chose to discuss in his presentation with regard to
the substance of the dispute. Instead, Dembski dabbles in prophecy. His argument
in favor of ID mainly boils down to the references to polls which show that the
majority of Americans believe in some form of creationism. This may be true.
However, Dembski himself gives an example of astrology which is no less popular
in America than ID, but this by no means makes astrology plausible. Dembski is
not arguing in his presentation that ID will win the minds because it is true.
It will win, predicts Dembski, because the American public is predisposed to
believe in ID. The same may be true though for astrology and other fads and
fallacies he himself listed as being widespread despite their contradicting
One more argument by Dembski is that young people are inclined to take the
side of innovators, and, since ID-ists are the new guys in town, the sympathy of
the younger generation will be with them, thus ensuring their victory. Maybe so.
What does it have to do with the merits of ID "theory?" If scientific theories
were accepted or rejected by a popular vote, or just by the vote of young
people, quantum mechanics, the general theory of relativity and a whole bunch of
other great achievements of the human mind would never have had a chance to take
their legitimate place in the progress of humankind.
On page 4 Dembski argues that his ID theory is "not a crank theory (at least
not one that is obviously so)." The sole argument Dembski offers in favor
of that statement is that Paul Davies "thinks that it's onto something
important," thus disagreeing with those who, like Wesley Elsberry, "think it
merely codifies the argument from ignorance." This seems to be a rather
weak argument, even by Dembski's standards. The reference to Davies can be
interpreted in various ways and is far from endorsing ID as a real scientific
theory. Moreover, so what if Davies or any other writer has indeed said
something which can somehow be interpreted charitably regarding Dembski's
ideas? The position whose strength can be sustained only by such ambiguous
references is weak indeed and can be suspected of being crank science with a
high degree of likelihood. If all Dembski can say in support of his views is
that somebody thinks it has "something to it," it raises a suspicion that he has
no factual evidence favoring his suppositions. To show that certain ideas or
theories indeed belong in real rather than crank science, one has to subject
those ideas to merciless tests, wherein evidence supporting these ideas can be
reproduced and independently verified. Dembski and his colleagues in the ID
"movement" not only did not ever produce such evidence which could be
independently verified, but in fact offered no evidence at all despite having a
substantial financial support and a substantial fighting force at their
Discovery Institute of Seattle. Instead of supporting his theory by factual
evidence and arguments of substance, all Dembski was able to do was to resort to
a dubious reference which proves nothing and is largely irrelevant. That is the
tenor of Dembski's entire presentation.
In a similar manner, Dembski plays with other quotations allegedly supporting
his thesis, like a quotation from Mencken on page 2, juxtaposed with a quotation
from Gould, which, Dembski implies, contradict each other. These two quotations
may or may not contradict each other (and actually they were relating to
different situations and therefore their juxtaposition was meaningless). It is,
however, always possible to mine a host of quotations on every subject and
pretend that they prove something even if they are not relevant to each other in
any way. Such play with mutually irrelevant quotations confirms the
suspicion that Dembski has no real arguments which would be necessary in a talk
to an audience not consisting of such ID adherents who would happily swallow
anything seemingly confirming their already held preconceptions.
One the main points stressed by Dembski in his presentation is the assertion
that Intelligent Design, unlike such fringe pseudo-science as astrology and the
like, has by now become firmly "mainstream" in science. In this, Dembski
depicts the desired as if it is real. So far, the overwhelming majority of
mainstream scientists ignore ID as can be seen by searching through the
scientific literature. Practically no scientific magazine has published articles
by scientists wherein a discussion of ID and related matters could be found. No
references to ID can be found in the mainstream peer-reviewed scientific
publications. The ID advocates either publish their productions as popular or
semi-popular books and collections by non-scientific publishers or in their own
periodicals mostly connected to their Discovery Institute. The only exception
seems to be Dembski's monograph  published by the Cambridge University Press.
Even this book, reportedly, was Dembski's doctoral dissertation in
philosophy rather than in science. Regardless of how many times
Dembski will repeat his mantra about "mainstreaming" ID, the scientific
community has not and will not accept the claims by ID-ists unless and until he
and his colleagues present real data supporting their contentions. So far
no such data have been presented.
The overall level of Dembski's acerbic assault on skeptics can be exemplified
by his comment that the letters COP in the abbreviation CSICOP are "not
accidental." Is this so? In the absence of real arguments, they may be
sometimes replaced with attempts at being witty by using irrelevant puns.
Dembski wants the readers to believe that the organization of skeptics is like
police trying to muzzle its opponents. Somehow he does not notice the absurdity
of such an accusation given the fact that he and his cohort Nelson are freely
presenting their views at the meeting organized by the same CSICOP which
allegedly is out to prevent the IDists from presenting their views.
Maybe in his actual talk Demski said something beyond the irrelevant
discussion of the prospects for ID versus evolution to win the minds of masses?
It does not seem to be the case. According to the reports by the attendees of
the conference, in his actual talk Dembski did not say anything beyond the
immaterial quasi-arguments of his posted piece . (This can also be verified
by viewing the video tape of the session in question, available from
Let me list some of the items that were discussed by Dembski's critics (a
partial list of critical reviews of Dembki's literary production includes, but
not limited to [4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13,14,15,16,17]). To some of his critics
Dembski never replied in any form. To some others he responded (for example in
his latest book ) with superficial and largely irrelevant arguments, but he
never really replied to the substance of a number of points listed below, which
constitute essential elements of his theory.
Dembski asserted that complexity is tantamount to low probability. This
assertion was rebuffed more than by one of the listed critics. Dembski never
replied to that critique.
Dembski asserted that his Explanatory Filter never produces "false
positives." This assertion was rebuffed by several of the listed (as well as
by some not listed) critics. Dembski never replied to them. (It can be
argued though that in his latest book  Dembski by implication concedes that
false positives can be produced by his Explanatory Filter after all but he
still does not admit this explicitly).
Dembski announced a supposedly new important law – the so-called Law
of Conservation of Information. More than one critic argued that the law in
question does not exist. Dembski never replied to those critics.
Dembski widely used a concept of what he called Specified Complexity. More
than one critic argued that the concept in question is meaningless in the
sense it has been used by Dembski. The latter never replied to this critique.
The same can be said about Dembski's concept of Complex Specified
Dembski insists that design can be reliably inferred if low probability of
an event is combined with its specification. More than one among the listed
critics argued that the specification as defined by Dembski has no reasonable
interpretation. Dembski never responded to that critique.
There are other items claimed by Dembski, subjected to critique to which
Dembski never responded while he continues to promote the same criticized
concepts and assertions.
In his presentation, Dembski condescendingly suggested a program of action
for skeptics if the latter wish to defend their position against ID. In his
uncompromising self-confidence Dembski seems not to realize that if he suggests
a new, allegedly revolutionary theory, the burden of proof is on him and on his
colleagues in the ID camp. It is ID-ists who need to provide evidence, any
evidence, in support of their position. It is precisely the absence of evidence
for the ID theory that makes skeptics (read: mainstream scientists) to reject ID
as an unsubstantiated attempt to overturn the facts established by science. If
Dembski or any of his colleagues showed any reasonable evidence supporting their
views, then, beyond doubts, scientists would be much more receptive in regard to
their theory. So far this has not happened. Therefore, rather than suggesting
what skeptics should do to defend their views from the assault by ID, Dembski
should better think of how to search for any believable proof of his own so far
arbitrary and dubious assertions.
By inviting Dembski and Nelson to give talks at the 4th World
Skeptics Conference, its organizers offered Dembski a chance to reply to his
critics on the matters of substance and to defend his position in front of a
diversified audience, mostly not very friendly to his views. By taking the floor
at the conference in question, Dembski put himself in an unenviable position of
denying a simple fact obvious to all – he was complaining about skeptics
suppressing his views while speaking to the same skeptics who provided to him
I would like to thank Brian Spitzer, Pete Dunkelberg, and Wesley Elsberry for
constructive remarks regarding the initial version of this article.
 William A. Dembski, [online], Skepticism's Prospects for Unseating
Intelligent Design, accessed on June 22, 2002.
 William A. Dembski, The Design Inference, (Cambridge University
 William A. Dembski, No Free Lunch – Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be
Purchased without Intelligence, (Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham, Maryland,
 Mark Perakh, [online], A Consistent Inconsistency,
accessed on June 22, 2002.
 Mark Perakh, [online], A Free Lunch in a Mousetrap,
accessed on June 22, 2002.
 Richard Wein, [online], What's Wrong with the Design Inference?,
accessed on November 22, 2001.
 Richard Wein, [online], Not a Free Lunch But a Box of Chocolate,
accessed on June 22, 2002.
 Matt Young, [online], How to Evolve Specified Complexity by Natural Means , accessed on March 10,
 Victor J. Stenger, [online], Messages from Heaven, accessed
on January 17, 2002.
 Robert T. Pennock, Tower of Babel (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press,
 Taner Edis, [online], Darwin in Mind,
accessed on January 17, 2002.
 Eli Chiprout, [online], A critique of "The design inference",
accessed on July 25, 2001. [This post has been removed from the web. Chiprout's article is temporarily available at http://members.cox.net/chiprout/DesignInference/Demski.htm.]
 Wesley R. Elsberry, [online],
Critiques and Reviews of the Work of William Dembski, accessed on
November 22, 2001.
 Wesley R. Elsberry, [online], Review of WA Dembski's "The Design Inference", accessed on June 22, 2002.
 Thomas D. Schneider, [online],
www.lecb.ncifcif.gov/~toms/paper/ev/dembski/claimtest.html, accessed on
November 22, 2001.
 Branden Fitelson, Christopher Stephens and Elliott Sober, Philosophy
of Science, 66, (1999): 472.
 John S. Wilkins and Wesley R. Elsberry, The Advantages of Theft over
Toil: The Design Inference and Arguing From Ignorance, Biology and
Philosophy, v.16, 711 (2001).
Originally posted at Talkdesign.org
A slightly different version of this article has been published in Skeptical Inquirer, v.26, No. 6, Nov-Dec. 2002.