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Response 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 really happened.

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 them.

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 correct.

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 that.

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 mistake.

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 unethical.

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.