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Ken Miller Twists William Dembski’s Methods for Inferring Intelligent Design

Casey Luskin

A reporter recently sent me an anti-intelligent design BBC documentary with the outlandish title “A War on Science.” In it, Darwinian biologist Ken Miller is shown purporting to refute irreducible complexity in the bacterial flagellum by citing the type 3 secretory apparatus, giving his usual misrepresentation of irreducible complexity. But it gets incredibly worse. Miller egregiously twists the basic arguments of leading ID theorist, mathematician William Dembski. To paraphrase Miller’s argument (Miller’s exact words are given ***below), when cards are dealt out in a game of poker, the hand you get is unlikely. But obviously that hand wasn’t intelligently designed. Therefore, unlikely and non-designed things happen all the time, so evolution can happen even if it’s unlikely, and we should never infer design. This completely misrepresents Dembski’s arguments. Dembski 101 explains that unlikely events happen all the time and that unlikelihood alone is not how we detect design. In fact, the first two paragraphs of the first page of the first section of Dembski’s first foundational work, The Design Inference, plainly makes this point:

In Personal Knowledge, Michael Polanyi (1962, pg. 33) considers stones placed in a garden. In one instance the stones spell “Welcome to Wales by British Railways,” in the other they appear randomly strewn. In both instances, the precise arrangement of the stones is vastly improbable. Indeed, any given arrangement of stones is but one of almost infinite possible arrangements. Nonetheless, arrangements of stones that spell coherent English sentences form but a miniscule proportion of the total possible arrangements of stones. The improbability of such arrangements is not properly referred to chance.

What is the difference between a randomly strewn arrangement and one that spells a coherent English sentence? Improbability, by itself, isn’t decisive. In addition what’s needed is conformity to a pattern. When stones spell a coherent English sentence, they conform to a pattern. When they are randomly strewn, no pattern is evident. But herein lies a difficulty. Everything conforms to some pattern or other — even a random arrangement of stones. The crucial question, therefore, is whether an arrangement of stones conforms to the right sort of pattern to eliminate chance.

(William A. Dembski, The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance Through Small Probabilities, pg. xi (Cambridge University Press, 1998), emphases added.)

Could Dembski be any more clear? His point is that some unlikely events should NOT be attributed to design, but rather are best explained by chance. Dembski’s fundamental premise is that Miller’s random poker hand is a perfectly good example of an unlikely event which is best explained by chance. But what happens when one is dealt 50 consecutive royal flushes? What happens when the stones spell out “Welcome to Wales by British Railways”? Clearly, not all unlikely events are best explained by chance, especially when they conform to a special type of pattern. Dembski calls this conformation to a pattern “specification.”

The design inference therefore requires unlikelihood (related to complexity) coupled with specification. Miller implies that Dembski infers design by the mere unlikelihood of an event, but Miller egregiously ignores the fact that according to Dembski, we must also have specification to infer design. Dembski even uses this very example of dealing a hand of cards when illustrating an unlikely but yet non-designed event. (See how this is implied in Dembski’s essay “Intelligent Design as a Theory of Information.”) Ken Miller has put forth a patently false straw-man characterization of intelligent design arguments in order to falsely allege refutations to the public.

*** Here are Miller’s exact words when discussing this subject in the documentary:

“One of the mathematical tricks employed by intelligent design involves taking the present-day situation and calculating probabilities that at the present would have appeared randomly from events in the past. And the best example I can give is to sit down with 4 friends, shuffle a deck of 52 cards, and deal them out, and keep an exact record of the order in which the cards were dealt. We could then look back and say ‘my goodness, how improbable this is, we could play cards for the rest of our lives and we would never ever deal the cards out in this exact same fashion.’ And you know that’s absolutely correct. Nonetheless, you dealt them out and nonetheless you got the hand that you did.”


Casey Luskin

Associate Director, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.



Ken Miller