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Intelligent Design Proponents Toil More than the Critics: A Response to Wesley Elsberry and Jeffrey Shallit

Casey Luskin

A few years back Dr. Wesley Elsberry and Dr. Jeffrey Shallit co-wrote an article, “Information Theory, Evolutionary Computation, and Dembski’s ‘Complex Specified Information’,” in response to William Dembski’s 2001 book No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased without Intelligence.

No Free Lunch was something of a sequel to Dembski’s first major book, The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance through Small Probabilities (Cambridge University Press, 1998), but Dembski’s work has come a long way since that time. In this regard–and it’s not Elsberry or Shallit’s fault per se, this is just how things go–their critique is now somewhat out-dated. The computational research of Dembski and Robert Marks at the Evolutionary Informatics Lab (as well as the Biologic Institute) has preempted many lines of objection they raised. For example, Elsberry and Shallit charged that “intelligent design advocates have produced many popular books, but essentially no scientific research.” It’s doubtful that charge was accurate when they first posted their article, but no serious critic could make that charge in 2010.

Dembski has written brief replies to Shallit (see here and here) where he indicated that many of their criticisms are now outdated and that he did not see the need to write a further, detailed response. I too found many of Elsberry and Shallit’s critiques to be misguided and reflected misapplications of Dembski’s ideas. Nonetheless, I occasionally get emails from people interested in a rebuttal to their article, so I felt some written response is necessary. My response intends to be a non-exhaustive response to some of the errors in Elsberry and Shallit’s critique of Dembski. The response is titlted, “Intelligent Design Proponents Toil More than the Critics: A Response to Wesley Elsberry and Jeffrey Shallit,” and it can be found here. I will highlight some of its main points over the course of 2 posts on Evolution News & Views.

Elsberry and Shallit Find False Positives by Misapplying Specified Complexity
A common theme in Elsberry and Shallit’s response to William Dembski is that they infer design prematurely before thinking carefully about whether the structure or event in question can in fact be explained by natural causes. In their article, they consistently seem unwilling to think hard about the objects being studied to sort out possible causal histories and determine what the right answer should be (i.e. was it designed or not?). Dembski would reply by saying that this is why we should study scenarios extremely carefully and not simply infer design until we have seriously explored the plausibility of natural explanations.

For example, in one example, Elsberry and Shallit cite pulsars as an example of a pattern that could give a false positive for design under Dembski’s explanatory filter. They write:

Pulsars (rapidly pulsating extraterrestrial radio sources) were discovered by Jocelyn Bell in 1967. She observed a long series of pulses of period 1.337 seconds. In at least one case the signal was tracked for 30 consecutive minutes, which would represent approximately 1340 pulses. Like the SETI sequence, this sequence was viewed as improbable (hence “complex”) and specified (see Section 8), hence presumably it would constitute complex specified information and trigger a design inference. Yet spinning neutron stars, and not design, are the current explanation for pulsars.

This reasoning misapplies specified complexity. Pulsars do produce regular repeating patterns, but those patterns aren’t complex. Elsberry and Shallit are simply wrong to claim that the patterns we observe from pulsars are unlikely. Consider this description of pulsar patterns from NASA:

Pulsars pulse because the rotation of the neutron star causes the radiation generated within the magnetic field to sweep in and out of our line of sight with a regular period.

Thus, the “regular” patterns from pulsars are easily explained by natural law. The same holds for the “regular patterns formed by ice crystals,” which Elsberry and Shallit claim “would constitute CSI.”  In Understanding Intelligent Design, Dembski writes (with Sean McDowell) why ice crystals are easily explained by natural law:

we cannot infer something was designed merely by eliminating chance. Star-shaped ice crystals, which form on cold windows, are a case in point. They form as a matter of physical necessity simply by virtue of the properties of water. An ice crystal has an ordered structure, but it does not warrant a design inference — at least not in the same way as a Mickey Mouse landscape or Mount Rushmore. A designer may have designed the properties of water to bring about ice crystals, but such a design would be embedded in the laws of nature. The design we’re interested in is more like engineering design, which looks to particular structures rather than general processes.

(William Dembski and Sean McDowell, Understanding Intelligent Design: Everything You Need to Know in Plain Language, pp. 105-106 (Harvest House, 2008).)

Likewise, the repeating pattern of atomic packing in a salt crystal is a pattern, but not a complex one. The laws of atomic packing and chemical bonding easily determine the structure of a salt crystal. In none of these cases would we infer design.

Elsberry and Shallit also claim that basalt columns could trigger a false positive for design under Dembski’s methods, because they might appear to be intelligently designed stone columns, well known from ancient ruins. They write:

Let us consider the construction of tall pillars made of hard material, such as stone columns. We wish to argue that all such pillars are due to intelligent agents. Now in every case where a pillar appears and the underlying causal story is known with the certainty Dembski demands, these pillars were constructed by intelligent agents (humans). Using Dembskian induction, we would conclude that intelligent agents must be responsible for all such pillars, including the sand pipes at Kodachrome Basin State Park in Utah and the basalt columns at the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland. But this conclusion can only be retained by ruling out the circumstantial evidence in favor of accepted geological explanations for these features (ancient geysers and split volcanic flows, respectively; see [43]).

But an ID theorist who properly applies ID thinking would never obtain a false positive from basalt columns. For one, it’s not true that “in every case where a [basalt column] appears and the underlying causal story is known with the certainty Dembski demands, these [columns] were constructed by intelligent agents (humans).” We can observe basalt lava flows in the present day cooing and then observe the columnar shapes caused by cooling basaltic lava. So we have a known, viable, natural explanation for these structures. Such columnar basalts are common in Eastern Washington State and I’ve observed them many times; they do NOT resemble human-designed pillars. Here are just a few reasons why basalt columns aren’t like “stone pillars” known from ancient human ruins:

  • First, basalt columns are generally hexagonal or pentagonal prisms and human designed pillars from ruins are generally round.
  • Second, basalt columns are never found standing alone but instead are found embedded in an outcrop representing a cooled lava flow. In contrast, human designed pillars from ruins can be found standing alone or resting on any type of rock, and need not be embedded in a lava flow.
  • Third, basalt columns are made of basalt and found near basalt lava — the tell-tale sign. Human designed pillars can be found anywhere and are commonly made of marble or other carvable rock — not basalt.

It seems unlikely that a careful design theorist investigator would confuse basalt columns with a designed structure. The same goes for Elsberry and Shallit’s examples of rainbows, fungus “fairy rings,” and circular and polygonal cracks in rocks due to freezing. None of these entail false positives for Dembski’s methods. They are in every case easily explained via observed natural causes.

To be more precise, part of the reason why Elsberry and Shallit are uncovering alleged “false positives” is that they are constantly inferring design prematurely without carefully asking whether natural causes exist for that structure. Their examples infer design too quickly. They are not willing to do hard investigation to really determine if ID is in fact the best explanation, or if some natural explanation is superior. This flaw in their methodology will become increasingly clear as further examples are discussed. Specifically, my response to Elsberry and Shallit discusses this flaw in their reasoning with regards to Dembski’s “Nicholas Caputo” example and other examples in more detail.


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.



Jeffrey ShallitWesley Elsberry