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- DR. DEMBSKI'S COMPASS - or, How to lose one's way while looking for misdirection.


Andrea Bottaro responds to a criticism made by "intelligent design" advocate William A. Dembski about Bottaro's review of Unlocking the Mystery of Life.

Andrea Bottaro

University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry

[Posted: 10 August 2003]

Leading Intelligent Design Creationism (IDC) proponent Dr. William Dembski has quoted my recent critique of the video "Unlocking the Mystery of Life"1 in "The Myths of Darwinism", the Introduction to his latest edited book "Uncommon Dissent: Intellectuals Who Find Darwinism Unconvincing"2. Unflatteringly, alas, the quote is meant to illustrate a purportedly common misinformation strategy (the "Myth of Victory Past") used by "Darwinists" to surreptitiously dispatch significant objections. According to Dembski, when a valid criticism to evolutionary theory is leveled, first it is "dismissed without an adequate response", and later defined as a "discredited criticism that was refuted a long time ago", without an adequate refutation in fact ever being offered. I am fingered by Dembski as an example of how this supposed "Darwinist" conspiracy works

Here, I wish to specifically address Dembski's charge that I "misdirected" readers of my "Unlocking" critique, and argue that, in fact, it is Dembski's own compass that must be malfunctioning3.

1. Setting off... in the wrong direction

After describing the "Myth of Victory Past" for his readers, Dembski writes:

"It will help to see how this Darwinist technique of "passing the buck" actually plays out in practice. ...
Here is what Bottaro says about irreducible complexity:

"The crucial argument ... widely discussed in the video, is the concept of "irreducibly complex" systems, and the purported impossibility of conventional evolutionary mechanisms to generate them. Although it was quickly rejected by biologists on theoretical and empirical grounds [ref.#6], "irreducible complexity" has remained the main staple of [Intelligent Design] Creationism. Ironically, this argument was just recently delivered a fatal blow in the prestigious science journal Nature, where a computer simulation based entirely on evolutionary principles (undirected random mutation and selection) was shown to be able to generate "irreducibly complex" outputs [ref.#7]."

"This sounds quite impressive and damning until one follows the paper trail. Indeed, what are references #6 and #7 to which Bottaro refers? Reference #6 is to Kenneth Miller's book "Finding Darwin's God". Unfortunately, you won't find the promised refutation of irreducible complexity's challenge to Darwinism there. "2

Dembski continues with a brief account of some of Miller's counter-arguments in "Finding Darwin's God", and references his own book "No Free Lunch" as the site of refutation of those arguments. Solemnly, Dembski concludes:

"Reference #6 is therefore an exercise in misdirection."2

Well, actually, it isn't. In fact, quite ironically, Dembski has barely set foot on the "paper trail" and he's already lost. His confident statement notwithstanding, my original reference #6 is not to Miller's "Finding Darwin's God". It's unclear how Dembski even reached that conclusion, since my reference, in its entirety, reads:

"6. see for instance several articles by Dr. Ken Miller, Brown University: Accessed 6/30/03"1 [emphasis added]

As anyone can verify at the click of a mouse, that link leads to Dr. Miller's web site, where more links to a number of articles are found. Here, "Finding Darwin's God" is represented by a single excerpt from its concluding chapter, very general in tone and void of any mention of either Behe or irreducible complexity. Oddly enough, Dembski even goes as far as directly quoting Miller from what he says is my own reference, but for the life of me I cannot find that quote on Miller's web page, or any of its side-links. On the other hand, Miller's site does contain several pertinent works, including his original review of "Darwin's Black Box" and a few more articles on irreducible complexity and IDC, written both before and after Dembski's "No Free Lunch". Dembski ignores the articles I referenced, discusses an arbitrarily chosen quote from "Finding Darwin's God" (that I didn't reference), and tells his readers to trust that he already neatly disposed of all these objections in his own book4.

Without excessively dwelling on this rather straightforward issue, if Dembski wishes to publicly accuse me of "misdirection" in my use of references, at the very least he should discuss, and direct his own readers to the references I actually give, rather than others of his own choosing.

2. A detour

OK, fine, wrong reference. Perhaps Dembski might still contend that even my real reference does not contain "the promised refutation of irreducible complexity's challenge to Darwinism"2. Except, that'd be wrong as well. As Dembski's own quote of my writing plainly shows, I never "promised" that readers would find some sort of definitive "refutation of irreducible complexity's challenge to Darwinism" in my reference #6, as he implies. What I did in fact was to simply refer readers to a source where they could find examples of the theoretical and empirical arguments based on which biologists rejected Behe's irreducible complexity5. Of course, it shouldn't surprise anybody that Dembski finds those arguments insufficient - or he wouldn't be today at the top of yet another list of "Darwinism doubters". Similarly, however, Dembski himself should perhaps consider the real possibility that biologists, such as myself, still find these same objections quite convincing, and his supposed refutations of them inadequate6. For someone like Dembski, who has been engaged in essentially the same argument for almost a decade in the absence of any significant rate of "conversion" of his opponents, this shouldn't represent a major revelation.

Truthfully, I can't actually tell what point Dembski is ultimately trying to make here. He certainly can't be arguing that biologists did not quickly reject irreducible complexity on several theoretical and empirical grounds, or that some of those grounds are not described in reference #6 (either mine, or his imaginary one). And if this is the case, and my reference accurately reflects what was "promised" in the text, then Dembski's claim to the contrary is manifestly unsupported.

3. Walking in circles

Next, Dembski goes on to deal with my reference #7. The Lenski paper7, he informs us,

"... describes a computer simulation and thus contains no actual biology. ... The validity of this study therefore depends on whether the simulation maps faithfully onto biological reality.

Unfortunately, it does not, and the study therefore doesn't prove a thing about real-life biological evolution." 2

There are two separate issues here. The first relates again to my alleged "myth-making". Clearly, I was not referring here to some old paper which failed to really address the issue in question and/or had since been refuted (the forms of "Myth of Victory Past" previously described by Dembski). On the contrary, I was referring to a very recently published paper, which (to my knowledge) had not been formally addressed, let alone refuted, by Dembski or any other prominent ID advocate. Unless in Dembski's eyes I am guilty of misdirection because I did not anticipate a forthcoming refutation, and didn't proactively alert my readers to it, it's hard to understand his objection to this part of my critique and supporting references.

Secondly, and more importantly, Dembski's purported refutation of Lenski still has to come. Dembski's entire justification for the dismissal of the Nature paper boils down to his claim that its computer simulation does not "map faithfully onto biological reality". Why it doesn't, however, Dembski forgets to tell us, either in Myths or (as far as I know) anywhere else8. Until Dembski does so, of course, he can hardly accuse me of misdirection. At most, he can charge me with incompetence, for not seeing the obvious faults he finds in the paper, but then I'd still be in such company as the paper's own authors (as well as Nature's reviewers and editors). If the alternative is to take Dembski's rain check for a future substantial and convincing refutation9, I'll gladly stick with the other "incompetents" for the time being.

4. Conclusion - Dr. Dembski's compass

In "Myths of Darwinism", Dr. Dembski levels against me the rather serious accusation that I misled my readers, making me a participant in the pervasive misinformation ploy he alleges "Darwinists" routinely engage in. But, Dembski assures, if his readers follow his steps on the "paper trail", they can find their way back and safely arrive to their truthful destination.

Alas, at the end of the road, it is Dembski himself who appears quite off course, having lost his way, along with a chance for restraint and careful scholarship, while looking for signs of deceit in those 2 fateful references. When the facts are examined, one finds that:

  • quite embarrassingly, in his efforts to prove my "misdirection" Dembski seems to have taken the wrong turn himself (intentionally or as a result of plain shoddiness, I can't say), all the way to a reference which is not the one I clearly pointed to;

  • contrary to Dembski's claim, the first of my references leads my readers exactly to the information I said it would;

  • the second reference, Lenski's paper, still seems to represent the fatal blow to "irreducible complexity" I said it is, and will remain so as long as Dembski and fellow IDC advocates fail to provide any meaningful rebuttal of its conclusions.

In my critique of "Unlocking the Mystery of Life", I commented on the tendency of that unfortunate "documentary" to create straw-man versions of scientific knowledge to oppose to ID philosophy. Regrettably, in his Introduction to "Uncommon Dissent", Dembski appears to have chosen the very same approach to reach his rhetorical goal: he needed a good example of his purported "Darwinian Myth", and he simply made one up.



"Unlocking the Mystery of Life - More Omissions Than Facts", in "Bottaro's Letter to WNYE", at the National Center for Science Education web site: . Accessed 7/29/03. Reproduced here on

2., pages 12-16. Accessed 7/29/03


My primary concern here is to uphold my professional standards, as well as the contents of my "Unlocking" critique, against Dembski's misguided accusation. However, substantial criticisms can in fact be raised to Dembski's other claims regarding Miller's and Lenski's work. At the risk of being accused of another round of myth-making, I would refer the reader to the comments by Nic Tamzek and others (see;act=ST;f=2;t=72, and links therein. Accessed 7/29/03).

Paradoxically, Dembski seems here to engage in diversion tactics himself: first, my reference of Miller's site turns into a reference to "Finding Darwin's God", then Miller's numerous and complex arguments in that book get distilled into just his 4 counterexamples of "evolved" irreducible complexity. Finally, Dembski simply declares he has definitively shown those to be faulty in "No Free Lunch" - case closed. In fact, whether he successfully did it or not (arguable, but that's beside the point here), that can hardly be considered a wholesale refutation of "Finding Darwin's God", let alone of the many arguments against irreducible complexity raised by biologists I was referring to in my text.


For irreducible fans of the controversy, there are luckily many other freely available critiques of irreducible complexity on the web, in addition to Miller's. Among the best are several at and (links found here: and I particularly recommend Pete Dunkelberg's recent overview "IC Demystified":, and, closer to my own field of expertise, Matt Inlay's discussion of immune system evolution: An often entertaining series of exchanges between several ID advocates, including Dembski, and my U of R colleague H. Allen Orr can be found at the Boston Review web site ( ; ; ; Al sites accessed 7/29/03


I suspect this very inability to accept even the possibility of honest disagreement, out of absolute self-assuredness and/or lack of internal critical feed-back, is in fact the origin of some of IDC's recurrent and often bizarre conspiracy theories about "darwinian censorship" and the likes, such as Dembski's "myth" discussed here.


Lenski RE, Ofria C, Pennock RT, Adami C. "The evolutionary origin of complex features." Nature. May 8 2003; 423 (6936):139-44


To be fair, Dembski goes on to offer a cursory explanation. The authors, he says, begged the issue of irreducible complexity

"by requiring of their simulation that complex features exhibiting complex functions can always be decomposed into simpler features exhibiting simpler functions... There is no evidence that real-life irreducibly complex biochemical machines can be decomposed this way."2

As pointed out by Tamzek, however, this can't really be Dembski's reason for rejecting Lenski's conclusions, since Dembski himself has previously conceded this very same point:

"That an irreducibly complex system may have subsystems that have functions of their own (functions distinct from that of the original system) is therefore allowed in the definition."

(from "Still Spinning Just Fine: A Response to Ken Miller",

This is actually just one of several Dembski's statements on the same subject, quoted in the previously linked thread by Tamzek).


Cynics could say they almost see a strategy emerging:

"When a valid criticism ... is first proposed, it is dismissed without an adequate response, either on some technicality or with some irrelevancy or by simply being ignored. ... Thereafter, the criticism becomes known as "that discredited criticism that was refuted a long time ago"."2

But of course, according to Dembski only "Darwinists" do that, so I am looking forward to his forthcoming refutation of Lenski's paper.