Dembski's Curious Incompetence With Quotations
By Jeffrey Shallit
Posted April 13, 2004
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
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
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
Arthur Schopenhauer, "All truth passes through three stages. First, it is
ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being
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
Originally posted at The Panda's Thumb