Creationist Thermodynamics, Again

The folks over at Uncommon Descent have unveiled a new blogger: mathematician Granville Sewell. He’s the latest know-nothing to convert a comically simplistic version of the second law of thermodynamics into an anti-evolution argument.

Of course, this is one of those shark-jumping, litmus-test arguments that tell you immediately you are dealing with a crank. The second law of thermodynamics and modern evolutionary theory are not in conflict. That is a fact, not an opinion. Anyone claiming they are in conflict is confused about at least one of them, and probably both.

I have previously dealt at length with Sewell’s arguments. Let’s have a look at his latest rantings.

After linking to a blogger from Colombia who endorsed Sewell’s view of things, Sewell writes the following:

Every time I write on the topic of the second law of thermodynamics, the comments I see are so discouraging that I fully understand Phil Johnson’s frustration, when he wrote me “I long ago gave up the hope of ever getting scientists to talk rationally about the 2nd law instead of their giving the cliched emotional and knee-jerk responses. I skip the words ’2nd law’ and go straight to ‘information’”. People have found so many ways to corrupt the meaning of this law, to divert attention from the fundamental question of probability-primarily through the arguments that “anything can happen in an open system” (easily demolished, in my article) and “the second law only applies to energy” (though it is applied much more generally in most physics textbooks). But the fact is, the rearrangement of atoms into human brains and computers and the Internet does not violate any recognized law of science except the second law, so how can we discuss evolution without mentioning the one scientific law that applies?

The sheer, breathtaking gall of these folks is simply not to be believed. Phillip Johnson was the Berkeley law professor who got the ID movement rolling with his book Darwin on Trial. This book contained very little that was scientifically accurate. The very idea of Johnson lamenting the lack of rationality in the way scientists discuss the second law, or anything else, is just too rich.

Sewell does not link to any critics actually making either of the points he attributes to them. I’d be surprised if any scientifically knowledgeable person has ever suggested either that anything can happen in an open system, or that the second law only applies to energy. It is probably too much to hope that Sewell will engage seriously with criticisms of his argument (doing so, after all, would force him to admit that he is wrong). Nonetheless, let us explain why he is not correct.

The second law is ultimately a mathematical statement concerning the change in entropy that results from a physical process. It asserts that the change in entropy must be greater than a certain mathematical expression whose value can be determined (sometimes!) from an understanding of the physical paramters of the system. This expression is generally written using the language of calculus (it is the integral of dQ over T), but that level of detail is not necessary here.

If you imagine a system that is isolated from its surroundings, so that neither matter nor energy are crossing the boundary, then the integral has the value zero. That would mean that the change in entropy must be positive in this situation, which indicates an increase in entropy as the result of the physical process under consideration. We can therefore say that a spontaneous natural process taking place in an isolated system can not cause entropy to decrease.

If the system is not isolated; that is, either matter or energy is crossing the boundary); then the entropy can spontaneously decrease. However, it still can not decrease by more than the value given by the mathematical expression mentioned previously. So entropy can decrease, but the second law puts a lower bound on the magnitude of that decrease.

The conclusion is that if you have a system that is receiving energy from the outside, such as the Earth, then it is not even an apparent violation of the second law to see entropy decreasing. Any asserrtion that evolution or any other physical process violates the second law has to be backed up with a calculation. You have to show that the decrease in entropy that resulted from the physical process is smaller than the value of the mathematical expression mentioned previously. Minus that calculation you have only an assertion based on nothing. And recasting the second law in the language of probability or information does nothing to change that conclusion.

There’s plenty more to say of course. If you’re interested I invite you to follow the link above to my earlier essay on this subject. As it stands, Sewell has not even made an argument to show that evolution and the second law are at odds. He has merely asserted that they are, apparently based on nothing more than the fact that organisms have gotten more complex over time. His assertion is incorrect because the second law contains nothing to prevent such growth in complexity. His assertion is asinine and worthy of contempt because he doesn’t seem to have thought seriously about this subject, even as he pompously lectures others about it.

Comments

  1. #1 Jonathan Vos Post
    April 2, 2007

    The analogy is to whether one has an open mind or a closed mind.

    It appears to me that Granville Sewell has a closed mind. hence, by the second law of thermodynamics, the entropy of his mind can only increase.

    We are witnessing a late, highly disordered, high entropy mind. In other words, random.

    I like to think that I have an open mind, and can actually acquire new information. I like to think that my understanding of the world is increasingly ordered.

    By the way, what is the basis for the appellation: “mathematician Granville Sewell.”

    Is it entirely based on the likes of:

    Granville Sewell. Mathematics Dept. University of Texas El Paso. Bell Hall 200. Telephone: 747-6762. e-mail: sewell@math.utep.edu

    A Mathematician’s View of Evolution. Granville Sewell. Mathematics Dept. University of Texas El Paso. The Mathematical Intelligencer 22, no. 4 (2000), pp5-7

    Wikipedia says, in part:

    Edward Granville Sewell is an American mathematician and intelligent design advocate.

    Sewell received his PhD from Purdue University in 1972 and an MSc in mechanical engineering 1977 from the University of Texas, Austin. His BS was from Harding College (now Harding University). He is at the University of Texas, El Paso[1].

    Sewell’s primary work is on the solution of differential equations. He published “The Numerical Solution of Ordinary and Partial Differential Equations, Second Edition,” John Wiley & Sons, 2005 ISBN 0-471-73580-9. His major development effort has been the equation solver PDE2D–A general-purpose PDE solver. Sewell similarly published: “Computational Methods of Linear Algebra, Second Edition,” John Wiley 2005

    So has he become a loon, or always been a loon? Does the lunacy prcede the Math degree or not?

    He’s a step ahead of me in actually having published a Math book. I’ll admit that, to indicate my open mind…

  2. #2 Steven
    April 2, 2007

    You don’t even really need to get into the discussion of open vs closed systems when someone brings up the 2nd Law as an argument against evolution. Entropy isn’t a measure or index of spatial disorder or complexity. Self gravitating gases being one example of a simple system whose order increases with entropy. I think most people are confused on
    this point since their exposure of thermodynamics started and ended with perfect gases.

  3. #3 Boo
    April 2, 2007

    Hey, at least he’s not as stupid as Egnor.

    http://www.math.utep.edu/Faculty/sewell/articles/article.html

    A National Geographic article from November 2004 proclaims that the evidence is “overwhelming” that Darwin was right about evolution. Since there is no proof that natural selection has ever done anything more spectacular than cause bacteria to develop drug-resistant strains, where is the overwhelming evidence that justifies assigning to it an ability we do not attribute to any other natural force in the universe: the ability to create order out of disorder?

  4. #4 Torbjörn Larsson
    April 2, 2007

    at least he’s not as stupid as Egnor

    But he may be more dangerous for science. He has appended his entropy model for open systems (which physics is trivially faulty, btw) in a textbook of his.

    “In Appendix D of my new book The Numerical Solution of Ordinary and Partial Differential Equations, Second Edition [John Wiley & Sons, 2005], I take a closer look at the equations for entropy change” ( http://www.math.utep.edu/Faculty/sewell/articles/article.html )

    In that appendix [linked ibid] he goes on to misapply the already compromised model as a tool to misinform at length about thermodynamics and evolution:

    “The discovery that life on Earth developed through evolutionary “steps”, coupled with the observation that mutations and natural selection – like other natural forces – can cause (minor) change, is widely accepted in the scientific world as proof that natural selection – alone among all natural forces – can create order out of disorder, and even design human brains with human consciousness. Only the layman seems to see the problem with this logic. In a recent Mathematical Intelligencer article [Sewell 2000], after outlining the specific reasons why it is not reasonable to attribute the major steps in the development of life to natural selection, I asserted that the idea that the four fundamental forces of physics alone could rearrange the fundamental particles of Nature into spaceships, nuclear power plants, and computers, connected to laser printers, CRTs, keyboards, and the Internet, appears to violate the second law of thermodynamics in a spectacular way.
    [...]
    If we found evidence that DNA, auto parts, computer chips, and books entered through the Earth’s atmosphere at some time in the past, then perhaps the appearance of humans, cars, computers, and encyclopedias on a previously barren planet could be explained without postulating a violation of the second law here (it would have been violated somewhere else!). But if all we see entering is radiation and meteorite fragments, it seems clear that what is entering through the boundary cannot explain the increase in order observed here.”

    Since both his biology and thermodynamics are flawed, it would perhaps be incumbent to ask for a correction of his textbook. I’m also sure he wouldn’t want any suspicions of his math models being tarnished with the religious views promoted by DI.

  5. #5 Ex-drone
    April 2, 2007

    Here is how to apply thermodynamics to creationism. The more energy IDists put into corrupting science to denounce evolution, the more chilling it is.

  6. #6 gibbon1
    April 2, 2007

    The second law argument is silly.

    The question that creationists need to answer is, “if the the second law is contrary to evolution, then how is it not contrary to a single fertilized egg from growing into a fully developed chicken, or human, or dog, or a fern?”

  7. #7 _Arthur
    April 2, 2007

    “if the the second law is contrary to evolution, then how is it not contrary to a single fertilized egg from growing into a fully developed chicken, or human, or dog, or a fern?”

    For babies, there’s no contradiction: the stork bring them.

  8. #8 Ahcuah
    April 2, 2007

    Or the questions I always wish those folks were asked:

    So, how does a snowflake form?

    How does a salt crystal form?

    How do gold nuggets form?

    Does Maxwell’s Demon sit there carefully placing the atoms?

  9. #9 Tym
    April 2, 2007

    The key thing is to force people into understanding definitions while not making them feel stupid. People make the immediate jump from entropy to disorder and misinterpret the second law as saying “disorder is always increasing”, omitting the crucial “net” and “universe” terms.

    Biggest Point:
    Entropy can decrease- Chill some water down, and you reduce the number of microstates, the entropy of the water. The net increase in entropy will be positive from the energy to run the freezer, but you’ve still got a decrease in entropy amongst your water molecules. Bust out a formula if you like. Creationists don’t like formulas.

    From this, you’ve pretty much clarified the second law, and you no longer have a misunderstanding.

  10. #10 Torbjörn Larsson
    April 3, 2007

    Does Maxwell’s Demon sit there carefully placing the atoms?

    It has been noted that while Maxwell’s demon may work for free, the establishment always takes a cut.

  11. #11 Peter
    April 3, 2007

    It’s silly no matter how you look at it, I come from a different approach though, how can you try to use a scientific principle by sciency people when you don’t believe in science, and surely, if evolution falls foul of the 2nd law, then doesn’t creation?

  12. #12 Blake Stacey
    April 3, 2007

    Christian Right Lobbies To Overturn Second Law Of Thermodynamics!

    TOPEKA, KS–The second law of thermodynamics, a fundamental scientific principle stating that entropy increases over time as organized forms decay into greater states of randomness, has come under fire from conservative Christian groups, who are demanding that the law be repealed.

    “What do these scientists want us teaching our children? That the universe will continue to expand until it reaches eventual heat death?” asked Christian Coalition president Ralph Reed, speaking at a rally protesting a recent Kansas Board Of Education decision upholding the law. “That’s hardly an optimistic view of a world the Lord created for mankind. The American people are sending a strong message here: We don’t like the implications of this law, and we will not rest until it has been reversed in the courts.”

  13. #13 Ben M
    April 3, 2007

    “I skip the words ’2nd law’ and go straight to ‘information’”

    This is rather like saying, “Energy is conserved. But let’s stop calling it energy and call it ‘force’, which is the same thing as energy via E = F*x, since we can change units such that x=1. Therefore force is conserved; that’s why there are only two Sith, a master and an apprentice.”

  14. #14 mark
    April 3, 2007

    Only the layman seems to see the problem with this logic.

    Here’s another one of those key phrases that let the reader know the author is a practitioner of woo-woo. It’s always “only the layman” who can design a perpetual-motion machine; who can design an automobile to run on water; who can develop a cure for cancer by using common drinks as enemas; who has seen the aliens getting out of their spacecraft.

  15. #15 Robert O'Brien
    April 4, 2007

    The folks over at Uncommon Descent have unveiled a new blogger: mathematician Granville Sewell. He’s the latest know-nothing…

    As a mathematician he clearly knows something; whether he knows enough about thermo is a separate issue.

  16. #16 Alex Whiteside
    April 4, 2007

    GIBBS’. FREE. ENERGY. YOU. IGNORANT. WANKS.

    This is high school physical chemistry! Delta-G equals Delta-H minus T-Delta-S! Delta-G has to be equal to or less than zero for a spontaneous process!

    Even if they didn’t know that (these pre-eminent scientists skipped the fundimentals of chemistry) surely it would be obvious from the implications of their theory? I mean, if the entropy change has to be positive for all systems, crystallisation wouldn’t occur, wounds couldn’t heal, people couldn’t grow, and so on and so forth. Reductio ad absurdum!

  17. #17 trrll
    April 5, 2007

    Or the questions I always wish those folks were asked:

    So, how does a snowflake form?
    How does a salt crystal form?
    How do gold nuggets form?
    Does Maxwell’s Demon sit there carefully placing the atoms?

    Ask them, and you’ll quickly learn that they don’t really understand thermodynamics at all; what they are calling thermodynamics is just vitalism with a new coat of paint. They see no problem with such “natural” forms of order, but they imagine “living” order to be somehow qualitatively different. Dembski’s view is similar–life has some magical form of order that he calls “specified complexity.” Of course, neither Sewell nor Dembski has ever managed to define this sort of magical order in any kind of mathematically rigorous way. In the end, it invariable boils down to their personal conviction that the probability of ordered structures forming as a result of natural selection must be very small–justified with handwaving arguments about permutations that do not even attempt to address the probabilistic structure of natural selection.

  18. #18 MattXIV
    April 5, 2007

    “Energy is conserved. But let’s stop calling it energy and call it ‘force’, which is the same thing as energy via E = F*x, since we can change units such that x=1. Therefore force is conserved; that’s why there are only two Sith, a master and an apprentice.”

    Quite possibly the most apt summary of 2nd law/information creationist “arguments” I’ve ever read. Ben, you just made my day.

  19. #19 MattXIV
    April 5, 2007

    Sewell tips his hand too much in the article he links to in the post and actually makes a statement that can be empirically falisifed instead of the normal empty blather.

    “It is a well-known prediction of the second law that, in a closed system, every type of order is unstable and must eventually decrease, as everything tends toward more probable states”

    That is absolutely wrong as can be demonstrated by a simple example. Consider a closed system consisting of pure water and water with an ionic compound dissolved in it separated by a membrane that is permiable to the cation of the compound, but not the anion. In this system, the charge distribution starts uniform, but as cations move across the membrane to reduce the difference in concentration, a difference in charge arises. There are plenty of other examples – flashing a mixture of solvents is also a good one. He either doesn’t understand the physics involved on any practical level or is intentionally being deceptive and either case means he has no business writing about thermodynamics.

  20. #20 Alejandro
    April 8, 2007

    I’d be surprised if any scientifically knowledgeable person has ever suggested either that anything can happen in an open system, or that the second law only applies to energy.

    The second law of thermodynamics only deals with energy.

  21. #21 TheFallibleFiend
    June 29, 2007

    2LOT is an inequality. If that inequality is not violated, neither is 2LOT.
    They might add “But you need a machine in place to harness this energy and fight entropy” or some other equally silly stuff. They may believe that. But it’s not what 2LOT says. It’s very simple: if the inequality is not violated, neither is 2LOT. Everything else is smoke.

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