Dispatches from the Creation Wars

April Fool’s Joke or Real?

Pete Dunkelberg has a post at the Panda’s Thumb where he puts up a quote about the mass of information that is staggeringly stupid and asks if you can discern whether it’s a genuine quote from a major ID advocate, or a clever parody. I’ll paste the quote below the fold:

One of the things I do in my classes to get this idea across to students is I hold up two computer disks. One is loaded with software the other one is blank. And I ask

“What’s the difference in mass between these two computer disks as a result of the difference in the information content that they posses?”

And of course the answer is zero – none. There is no difference as a result of the information. And that’s because information is a massless quantity. Now if information is not a material entity, then how can any materialistic explanation explain its origin? How can any material cause explain its origin. And, this is the real fundamental problem that the presence of information in biology has posed. It creates a fundamental challenge to the materialistic evolutionary scenarios because information is a different kind of entity that matter and energy cannot produce. uhm In the nineteenth century we thought that there were two fundamental entities of science: matter and energy. At the beginning of the 21st century we now recognize that there is a third fundamental entity, and it’s information. It doesn’t – it’s not reducible to matter, it’s not reducible to energy, but it is still a very important thing that is real, we buy it we sell it, we send it down wires. Now what do we make of the fact that information is present at the very root of all biological function? [picture of DNA] That in biology we have matter we have energy but we also have this third, very important entity, information? The biology of the information age I think poses a fundamental challenge to any materialistic approach to the origin of life.

The answer, of course, is that this is a real quote, said by Stephen Meyer of the Discovery Institute. Sometimes you simply can’t parody statements this nonsensical.


  1. #1 Robert
    April 6, 2007

    Information is an organizational quality to matter. ugh.

  2. #2 Tulle
    April 6, 2007

    Where do I even start…..

    Energy has no mass. Plus we know that engery and matter are the same thing, by e=mc2. The information on the disk is stored as the engery in a magnetic field. I can think of no information storage system that is not either mass or energy. Can someone name one for me????

    I have two dreams in my life, the first one is to come up with a product that makes money but does not require customers. The second is software thst does not require hardware to run. So information stoarge without engery or mass would help me greaty with the second.

  3. #3 Kristine
    April 6, 2007

    Wow I must be psychic. Lately I have been accurately guessing the reality of stupid ID statements versus other people’s claims that they were parodies! 😉

    Perhaps I need to analyze how I’m doing this and codify it as a decision chart, just as Dembski did with his EF, so that people have a process of distinguishing jokes from the real stoopeedeetee!

    First I need to come up with a snappy acronymn.

  4. #4 paul
    April 6, 2007

    Guess he needs to read Decoding the Universe by Charles Seife.

  5. #5 tristero
    April 6, 2007

    I’m a layman in science. So, to physicists I’m going to ask what is certainly an incredibly stupid question. But I can’t learn anything if I don’t admit stupidity and ask experts to shed a little light.

    Is it actually the case that there is absolutely no difference in mass between the two disks?

    Please understand, I am in no way a creationist. I’ve blogged as furiously against them as anyone in the scienceblogs (please check). I honestly don’t know the answer to my question and would be grateful to get an answer.

  6. #6 MiddleO'Nowhere
    April 6, 2007


    As Robert mentioned “information” is an organizational quality. Take a set of Scrabble tiles with no particular order (fmaoniinrto). Now rearrange them to form the word “information”. The mass hasn’t changed, but now they represent useful information (to you at least, not necessarily to someone who doesn’t speak English). The same thing happens on the disk. The disk is manipulated to give some pattern, in this case alternating magnetic fields representing ones and zeros, that represents the data you want.

  7. #7 tristero
    April 6, 2007

    Ok, I read the comments on Panda’s Thumb. I think I understand what’s going on. One more shabby trick on the level of “dog spelled backwards spells god.”

    FWIW, I’m a layperson. I don’t claim anything but an interest in science which I read about with some regularity. I can only imagine how convincing such an argument as Stephen Meyer’s must sound to those who know less than me and who encounter it without rebuttal.

    (Cue the inevitable riposte: “No one knows less about science than you.” Fair enough, but still… )

  8. #8 MattXIV
    April 6, 2007


    The information is stored by changing the spin of unpaired electrons. Full-fledged magnetic disks won’t be – variation in manufacturing alone assures that and the interactions between the magnetized domains (bits of magnetic material that have the same spin on their unpaired electrons) could result in differences in the forces acting on electrons that would cause them to have different velocities and hence minutely different masses.

    But the core point is that having different values represented in something doesn’t change its mass (it is incorrect to call this a difference in the amount of information, since depending on the encoding of the info, the “blank” disk could be storing the same thing as the disk that had been written to). At the level of a single electron, it will have the same mass whether it has positive or negative spin, so you can represent two different pieces of information in a system without changing the system’s mass, but you do have to have a difference in some physical property.

  9. #9 Kristine
    April 6, 2007

    FWIW, I’m a layperson. I don’t claim anything but an interest in science which I read about with some regularity. I can only imagine how convincing such an argument as Stephen Meyer’s must sound to those who know less than me and who encounter it without rebuttal.

    tristero please don’t put yourself down! For Pete’s sake I’m a layperson too and my degree is in English. *Gasp* Rest assured that there are many who know less about science than you, and do indeed find these kind of arguments convincing. Creationism is not only a way to avoid explaining things, but also an excuse for not really caring about what it is creationists claim to “explain.” You care, and that’s half the battle right there.

  10. #10 tristero
    April 6, 2007


    Thanks. I think I understand. I’d like to see if a different tack makes any sense. Again, I apologize for my ignorance.

    I think Meyer is asking a totally nonsensical question simply because he removes time from consideration, which can’t be removed. Both the disks and their information can only exist in time.

    Now, any measurement measures the physical properties of the disks over a finite length of time, no matter how short. So, the more appropriate issues in play vis a vis the “materialism of information” are changes in mass/energy to the two disks over a physically relevant time period.

    And if information was *deliberately* placed on the disk at some point after both were manufactured while one was left alone, then a measurement that doesn’t measure the disks over that *entire* time period is worthless. It’s not surprising it measures no difference and not meaningful, either.

    Since it takes more energy to rearrange the order than to retain an existing one, then there must be differences, however fleeting, between the two disks, at least during the transition to the new order. In no way, over a genuinely relevant time interval, are the histories of the two disks identical in mass and energy, even if they sum to the same total.

    It’s this difference in their history that matters. And therefore, since both histories take place entirely in a material world, the new information is in a very real sense equal to that different history, and therefore information is not only a precipitate of, but an essential property of matter. In no meaningful way is information “immaterial.”

    Does that make any sense? I’m happy if the answer is no!

  11. #11 tristero
    April 6, 2007


    I understand. Thanks. Again, it’s that the amount of mass isn’t the relevant value. And thanks, Kristine!

  12. #12 Tulle
    April 6, 2007

    The real bait and switch is that both disks contain the same number of bits of data. The information on the disk is just a pattern of north/south poles. Not really different than sticks on a Chinese counting board. If I just throw the sticks on the board it has no meaning. If I arrrange them to represent a number it then has meaning.

    Now my question is, was the “blank” disk formatted? Who uses floppies anymore?

    I don’t know why, but if you look at a “blank” disk, it usually has bans of ones for a few tracks and then zeros for a few tracks, sith a short tranistion of random looking bits between. So a “blank” disk is not blank at all. The data on the disk just does not have any “meaning” to the owner of the disk. I am sure that the bans do say something about how the disk was made and/or formatted.

  13. #13 Godless McHeathenpants
    April 9, 2007

    If his argument is really that since information has no mass that it cannot have a material source, then how can we all convey information with ‘lil packets of electrons over teh intrawub? ? Or read a book? Or speak… or take a picture…

    And what the hell does he mean when he said that “information” is a and is involved in the root of all biological systems.

    What wacky definition of information could cover all the different meanings he needs it to even to be wrong.

    It’s worst than wrong. It’s self-contradictory, incoherent, has no basis in anything even resembling reality.

    He mentioned students. Please tell me he isn’t teaching children who wouldn’t know better.

    Is he being deliberately deceptive? Or does he believe what he said?

    Cerebral spinal fluid just shot out my nose…

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