Dumping on Dembski II

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Here at The Panda's Thumb we try to keep the discourse at a tolerably high level. Certain parodies of inane creationist cartoons notwithstanding, we are united by the belief that the arguments offered by creationists of all stripes are fundamentally mistaken, and the facts of modern biology are far more interesting than the caricature they present. But in the midst of all this high-mindedness we should not fancy ourselves above pouncing on instances of poor phrasing and unfortunate choices of words when we find them. Of course, such instances are evidence of nothing more than poor editing, and say nothing about the argument being made. Still, show me the curmudgeon who does not get a kick out of the following sentence, which appears on page 135 of William Dembski's The Design Revolution: Claude Shannon invented the mathematical theory of information shortly after World War II. The inspiration for his theory derived from his work during the war on cryptography. War on cryptography? Is that like the War on Drugs or the War on poverty? I guess Shannon didn't like number theorists. Or this one, from page 143: The Darwinian mechanism is a trial-and-error mechanism, with natural selection providing the trial and random variation providing the error. Ahem. Actually, it is random variation that provides the trial. Selection plays the role of “error”. If you're looking for more high-minded criticism of Dembski, go visit EvolutionBlog. I have just added a lengthy post about the limitations of intelligence and the difference between embodied and disembodied designers. Enjoy!

5 Comments

Dembski: “The Darwinian mechanism is a trial-and-error mechanism, with natural selection providing the trial and random variation providing the error.”

Rosenhouse: “Actually, it is random variation that provides the trial. Selection plays the role of “error”.”

Dembski apparently is interpreting the word “trial” to mean a test (“the action or process of trying or putting to the proof”). In that sense, natural selection provides the trial of the variants produced by natural selection.

However, the “trial” in the term “trial and error” is clearly another sense of the word, namely a tryout (“a tryout or experiment to test quality, value, or usefulness”).

As Dembski’s errors go (and they go a long way) this is a very minor one.

(Definitions from Merriam-Webster Online)

Oops… I mean to say “natural selection provides the trial of the variants produced by random variation”. There’s never an editing feature when you want one!

Shannon would certainly have been surprised.

I think, though, that the feckess Dembski fails the “write clearly and concisely” rule. He doubtless meant

“The inspiration for his theory derived from his work on cryptography during the war.

“A Mathematical Theory of Communication” came out in 1948, and he did work on cryptography:

http://www.research.att.com/~njas/d[…]shannon.html

I’ll give Dembski a pass on that one - there’s so much else to critique.

The opening part of my post seems to have been overlooked, judging from the comments so far. Let me call your attention to the line “Of course, such instances are evidence of nothing more than poor editing, and say nothing about the argument being made.”

I give Dembski a pass on both of these statements. I just found them amusing. That’s why I included the link to EvolutionBlog where I placed some (hopefully) more substantive criticisms of Dembski’s work.

Richard - I think you’re giving Dembski too much credit. I think he referred to random variation as error because mutations are often described as errors in the copying of DNA, and he just didn’t think too carefully about the analogy. It still has nothing to do with the point he was making, but it’s an amusing error nonetheless.

Mike-I think it’s a sure thing that Dembski’s intention was what you describe. But this is such a standard sort of stylistic error (along the lines of “I threw my mother from the train a kiss” that I felt it was worth calling attention to.

Let it never be said that we fail to take the cheap laughs.

Of coure, that means that we are fair game too…

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Jason Rosenhouse published on April 14, 2004 10:08 PM.

Beckwith’s Reply on the Establishment Clause Posts was the previous entry in this blog.

Compare Dembski and Coulomb is the next entry in this blog.

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