Anatomy of a Creationist Tall Tale

Jeffrey Shallit
University of Waterloo

This is the story of a particular creationist claim. It is not a particularly important claim, but it is illustrative of a certain reckless disregard for scholarship that is peculiar to creationism.

The story starts, as far as I can see, with a 1998 article by Del Ratzsch [1]. On page 294 he makes the following claim:

The Smithsonian Institution has a collection of obviously designed human artifacts, concerning the purposes of which no one has a clue.

No citation is provided for this claim.

In 2001 Ratzsch published a book that expands on this essay [2]. On pages 18-19 he writes

The Smithsonian reportedly has a number of obviously human, recognizably designed artifacts, the purposes of which have been entirely forgotten.

So far, so good. Although one might criticize Professor Ratzsch for not providing a reference, he does apparently recognize the tentative nature of his claim by including the word "reportedly".

Now the fun starts. In a 1998 article creationist William Dembski claims [3]:

There is a room at the Smithsonian filled with objects that are obviously designed but whose specific purpose anthropologists do not understand.

No citation is provided for this claim, but Dembski probably based it on what Ratzsch wrote, since Dembski edited the volume in which Ratzsch's contribution appears. In a recent book [4] Dembski repeats his claim on page 147:

Consider that the Smithsonian Institution devotes a room to obviously designed artifacts for which no one has a clue what those artifacts do.

This time, a footnote gives a citation to p. 247 of Ratzsch's article [1]. Note Dembski's change in meaning from what Ratzsch says. Ratzsch's cautious "A collection of ... artifacts" has suddenly become "a room" which is "filled" or "devote[d]" to these artifacts.

Curious about Dembski's claim, I wrote to the Smithsonian, and received the following fax dated April 16, 2002 from Kenneth Burke, Acting Program Coordinator, Public Inquiry Mail Service, Smithsonian Institution. It is reproduced in its entirety.

Your letter of March 21 has been referred to this office from the office of the Secretary for response.

The Smithsonian has no room such as described in William Dembski's book. He may be referring to a section of an exhibition called Nation's Attic which was displayed at the National Museum of History and Technology (now the National Museum of American History, Behring Center) from April 1, 1980 through February 8, 1981. We have enclosed a photocopy of a short article concerning the exhibition from Smithsonian magazine, April 1980. In one showcase in the exhibition a number of unindentified articles were displayed, but there was never a whole room devoted to them.

Your interest in the Smithsonian Institution is appreciated. [emphasis in bold added]

The April 1980 issue of Smithsonian reveals that the entire exhibit consisted of 125 objects; for nearly all of these objects the purpose was well-known [6]. The only reference to objects whose purpose is unknown consists of a single line:

The final category, Unidentified Objects, consists of several items that no one can figure out.
[emphasis in bold added]

In other words, "several items" exhibited once in 1980-1, in one showcase of an exhibit, have become in true creationist fashion, an entire room devoted to the artifacts.

But it gets worse. Dembski's claim is now being repeated in several places on the Internet. For example, see here. Sometimes the claim is repeated with extraordinary exaggeration. For example, an article by creationist Steve Renner [5] claimed that

For example, the Smithsonian contains thousands of intelligently-designed objects whose function, or intended function, is unknown to us. *

Notice that now the "several items" of the actual exhibit have changed into "thousands" of such items. Renner's claim was repeated in [7].

Anyone interested in this claim could have easily taken a few minutes' time, as I did, to write the Smithsonian Institution in order to ascertain its status. It is too bad creationists are so cavalier about such a basic requirement of good scholarship.


1. Del Ratzsch, "Design, chance & theistic evolution", in W. A. Dembski, ed., Mere Creation: Science, Faith & Intelligent Design, InterVarsity Press, 1998, pp. 289-312.

2. Del Ratzsch, Nature, Design and Science, State University of New York Press, 2001.

3. William A. Dembski, "Science and design", First Things 86 (October 1998), 21-27. Electronic text available at

4. William A. Dembski, No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot be Purchased Without Intelligence, Rowman & Littlefield, 2002.

5. Steve Renner, An Introduction to Intelligent Design,, accessed June 7 2002.

6. Edwards Park, "'Nation's Attic' dusts off forgotten objects for show", Smithsonian 11 (1) (April 1980), 123-125.

7. Steve Renner, An Introduction to Intelligent Design,, accessed June 7 2002.

* After this article was prepared, the pages by Renner were changed (c. June 10 2002), but for the time being you can still see the originals here and here.