Dembski's Curious Incompetence With Quotations

We all know about William Dembski's many educational degrees -- in part because he isn't shy about reeling them off. It's not the usual man who can exhibit two master's degrees and two Ph. D.'s. Such educational experience suggests a man who is in love with learning and who respects scholarship. All the more strange, then, that Dembski seems to be so completely incompetent when it comes to quotations.

In my review of Dembski's No Free Lunch, I already pointed out how Dembski's use of a line from the movie Contact was misleading. Not only did he get the quote wrong, he also misstated the name of the character who said it and what the line referred to!

In that article, I also showed how he quoted selectively from a review of Keith Devlin to make it appear that Devlin was endorsing his work.

In another article that recently appeared in Reports of the National Center for Science Education, I showed how Dembski took a claim of Del Ratzsch about the Smithsonian and dramatically inflated it, to the point where it became false. (An earlier version of my article is available here.)

Now Dembski's latest book, The Design Revolution: Answering the Toughest Questions About Intelligent Design shows an even more curious inability to relate quotations accurately.

Take, for example, page 201. There Dembski writes

One of skepticism's patron saints, H. L. Mencken, remarked, "For
every problem, there is a neat, simple solution, and it is always wrong."

Wrong again, Dr. Dembski. It only took me 5 minutes on the Internet, and a 5-minute trip to the library, to find the original source of the quotation. It is Mencken's 1920 book, Prejudices: Second Series, and it appears on page 158. The real quote is: "Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem --- neat, plausible, and wrong." Now if I can do this in ten minutes, why can't Dembski be bothered? Is good scholarship so unimportant?

On page 20, Dembski quotes Haldane about the four stages of acceptance of new ideas, but the first part of the quotation "Theories pass through four stages of acceptance" doesn't appear in Haldane's actual quote. Instead, Haldane wrote "I suppose the process of acceptance will pass through the usual four stages:" (See "The truth about death" in Journal of Genetics 58 (1962-3), pp. 463-464 for the real quote.)

The fact that Haldane uses the term "usual" suggests the four stages predate him, and in fact similar statements can be found in the writings of the German embryologist Karl Ernst von Baer (1866) (where it is attributed to Agassiz), Zahm (1896) (where it is attributed to Whewell); and William James (1907).

But it gets even worse. Also on page 20, Dembski writes

According to Arthur Schopenhauer, "All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident."

The only problem is that Schopenhauer apparently never said this.

Several years ago, long before Dembski used this quote, I spent about three years, off and on, looking for its source. It wasn't easy. I consulted Schopenhauer scholars, examined dozens of quote dictionaries, used many electronic resources, and submitted a query to the British radio program Quote, Unquote. Eventually I determined that in all likelihood, Schopenhauer never said this (although he did say something vaguely analogous in 1818) and that the erroneous attribution may have originated in a 1981 interview with author Edward Packard.

When I saw the quote being touted in a preliminary version of Dembski's book in May 2002, I immediately wrote him and informed him that the quote was very probably specious. He then replied with a three-word message: "Prove me wrong."

But quotations are particularly susceptible to misattribution; there are even two books (Boller and George's They Never Said It, and Keyes' Nice Guys Finish Seventh) devoted to tracking down the original source of quotations. It is, of course, nearly impossible to prove that someone didn't say something. And anyone can invent or misremember a quotation and then find someone to attribute it to. As Ralph Keyes said, "Any quotation that can be altered will be." The burden of proof is on the person hawking the quotation, not the skeptic.

I then referred Dembski to my forthcoming letter to Skeptic magazine (which was published later that year), in which I explained why the Schopenhauer quote was in all likelihood fabricated. Since it was so discredited, I felt sure that Dembski would not use the quote in the published version of his book.

So I was astonished to open The Design Revolution and discover that Dembski continues to use the quote, and continues to attribute it to Schopenhauer. The fact that he does so suggests a certain contempt for accuracy incompatible with being a scholar -- no matter how many degrees he has. As American humorist Josh Billings (Henry Wheeler Shaw) wrote, "I honestly beleave it iz better tew know nothing than two know what ain't so."

Oh, and the Mencken quote? Ironically, it appears in a piece he titled The Divine Afflatus. The Oxford English Dictionary gives one definition of "afflatus" as "the miraculous communication of supernatural knowledge". Maybe ID should be renamed "afflatus theory". Or even better, "a flatus theory".