Ooblog presents a fascinating exchange that he had with Discovery Institute blogger Michael Egnor.

The exchange centers on Egnor’s oft repeated challenge to Darwinists to explain how it is possible for naturalistic processes to explain the growth of information during evolution. This nonsensical argument is a frequent guest in creationist and ID literature.

Ooblog quite reasonably asked Egnor to explain what he meant by information in this context. The subsequent exchange of e-mails makes for interesting reading.

Here is the first exchange. First Ooblog:

Dear Dr. Egnor,

A while back, I read about your attempts to get Darwinists to tell you how how much biologically meaningful information a darwinian process can generate.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure what you mean by biologically meaningful information. Could you please clarify what you mean by this?

Thank you,

Now Egnor:

Thanks for the note. I asked Darwinists to define biological information, because Darwin’s theory hinges on it. Darwin asserted that all natural functional biological complexity (information) arose by non-teleological variation and natural selection. ID theory asserts that some natural functional biological complexity (information) arose by teleological variation and natural selection. By ‘teleological’ I mean a process that is most reasonably understood as the result of intelligent agency, analogous to human intelligent agency, with which we have ample experience.

These assertions are the whole issue in the ID/Darwin debate.

I think the best definition is Dembski’s CSI, but there remains a lot to understand. What appalled me is that Darwinists don’t even know how to measure the property on which their entire theory turns.

I can’t help them prove their theory. That’s their job. What kind of scientist asserts that his theory is a fact, and when you ask him for the data on which his theory turns, he demands that you tell him how to prove it?

Darwinism is a scandal.

Get the picture? Later Egnor says this:

No one knows how to measure biological information in a meaningful way. The current ways of measuring information (Shannon, KC, etc) are relevant to sending signals, and are not of much help in biology.

Gene duplication is not a source of significant new information. It obviously changes the way things work in the cell, to some extent, but it can only copy what’s there, and we’re asking how it got there to begin with.

Even though we can’t measure it (and serious investigators like Dembsky are trying to figure this out), we know biological information when we see it. The genetic code, molecular machines, seamless integration of physiology are all obviously the kind of biological information that we are trying to understand. (Emphasis Added)

The situation is this: Egnor challenges evolutionists to explain information growth. But when pressed for a definition of what he means by “information” he is unable to provide a definition. He even states bluntly that he does not know how to measure it.

Biologists, incidentally, do know how to measure biological information. It is customary to use Shannon’s conception of information in this context, which, indeed, is usually what mathematicians and scientists have in mind when pursuing that branch of mathematics known as Information Theory. Egnor knows, however, that it is trivial to explain the growth of such information via natural processes. So instead he must go off into a lot of vague hand-waving about how we know information when we see it even though we can’t really measure it.

As it happens, I addressed some of these issues in this recent post. I wrote:

I have raised this objection to ID folks before. The answer I usually get (when I get any answer at all) is that when it comes time to measure information, they are still using Shannon’s conception. But if that is the case, then their little challenge turns out to be no difficulty at all. There are a vairety of familiar genetic mechanisms that can account for increases in genetic information. Gene duplication followed by subsequent divergence is an especially important one. Any decent genetics textbook will tell you about many others. So it is either trivial to explain the growth of genetic information in time (if you mean Shannon’s version of information) or the question is meaningless (if addle-brained creationist argle-bargle about “specified complexity” is what you mean).

The exchange is fascinating not for the content of Egnor’s missives. Rather, it is fascinating for the light it shines on the complete phoniness of creationist argumentation. They are children playing with things they don’t understand. The entirety of their case is the argument from personal incredulity. They find it hard to believe that natural process could craft complex organisms. Full stop. There is nothing more to it than that.

All of their vaguely scientific prattlings are nothing more than fog meant to obscure this simple fact. They know that using big, technical sounding language can be impressive to non-scientists. When pressed, however, it becomes clear that it is only the language, and not the content, of science that they use.

So they blithely discourse about the stumbling block that information poses to a naturalistic theory of evolution. But ask them to clarify what they mean by information, or how we measure the stuff, or point out that known genetic mechanisms are adequate to explain information growth given the normal scientific meaning of the term, and they act like you are the one who is being unreasonable.

Likewise for their thermodynamical arguments. They are perfectly happy to gush about the second law and entropy and statistical mechanics. Until you dig a bit, that is. Ask them how they justify their assertions about entropy decreases in the course of natural history, or how they propose to calculate the entropy of the biosphere, or how they define a reversible process for assembling a complex organism from its component substances, and they accuse you of playing word games. In reality, the content of thermodynamics plays no role in their argument. They have only dogmatic assertions about what nature can and can not do.

Likewise again for their combinatorial and probabilistic arguments. They are perfectly happy to assign small numbers to the probabilities of things, and then multiply those numbers together to produce smaller numbers still. But ask them how they justify their choice of probability distribution, or how they know the events whose probabilities they are multiplying are independent, or point out to them the manifold ways their mathematical model differs from biological reality, and they stare at you with uncomprehending disbelief.

Creationism is all smoke and mirrors. It is about creating the illusion of scientific seriousness for an audience of people who can not distinguish the real thing from a slick fake. That is the scandal.

Comments

  1. #1 Chad
    April 24, 2007

    “Creationism is all smoke and mirrors. It is about creating the illusion of scientific seriousness for an audience of people who can not distinguish the real thing from a slick fake. That is the scandal.”

    Well put!

  2. #2 Tyler DiPietro
    April 24, 2007

    Thanks for the heads up, Jason. I’ve put my own thoughts up here. It’s truly outrageous that Egnor continues to peddle his utter nonsense on this matter.

  3. #3 Ex-drone
    April 25, 2007

    It’s obvious why IDiots do not know how to measure information. If you want a more forthcoming response, next time ask them how they measure misinformation.

  4. #4 G. Shelley
    April 25, 2007

    This makes a kind of sense.
    He knows biological information exists and is important and expects that scientists should share this attitude, so feels no need to define it. Perhaps from his point of view, the refusal of “evolutionists” to acknowledge information is akin to the refusal if IDers to state who the designer is.
    Of course, it still comes down to “I don’t know what information is, how it is measured, how changes could be detected, what processes could conceivably create it or what physical laws would make it’s creation unlikely or even impossible, but I know it exists”

  5. #5 slpage
    April 25, 2007

    I suspect that most evolutionary biologists are uninterested in information might be because Kimura demonstrated mathematically in 1961 that information is increased via adaptive evolution:

    Natural Selection as the process of accumulating genetic information in adaptive evolution. 1961. Kimura, M.

    “…natural selection is a mechanism by which new genetic information can be created. Indeed, this is the only mechanism known in natural science which can create it.”

  6. #6 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    April 25, 2007

    Creationists Don’t Know What They are Talking About. Literally!

    My favorite example of this is the Behe & Snoke paper (Protein Science (2004), 13:2651-2664) on the alleged improbability of certain types of multiple point mutation events. In a response Michael Lynch (Protein Science (2005), 14:2217-2225) points out:

    Before proceeding, a fundamental flaw in the argument of Behe and Snoke needs to be pointed out. Although the authors claim to be evaluating whether Darwinian processes are capable of yielding new multi-residue functions, the model that they present is non- Darwinian.

    Whoops!

  7. #7 James
    April 25, 2007

    I’ve posted a number of comments, including some attempts to respond to statements made by someone from Answers in Genesis who visited our campus, on my own blog at http://blue.butler.edu/~jfmcgrat/blog/ . I’d welcome comments, suggestions and other feedback!

  8. #8 Chris Mayer
    April 25, 2007

    Don’t you just love the tactic where Egg nog* just rules out Shannon’s measure of information without justification, and low-and-behold the rest of his ‘argument’ suddenly fals together for him.

    These guys should get David Copperfied designing their arguments.

    * Yes deliberately mispelling people’s names is childish.

  9. #9 Schnappi
    April 26, 2007

    Creationism is all smoke and mirrors. It is about creating the illusion of scientific seriousness for an audience of people who can not distinguish the real thing from a slick fake.

    Great, now it’s only a matter of time before some fundy claims that “Evolutionism is all smoke and mirrors”. I’ve noticed that creationists think it’s extremely clever to copy the rethoric of thier critics and turn it around (probably because it helps them pretend that both “theories” are equally substantial). Is there a name for this?

  10. #10 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    April 26, 2007

    Is there a name for this?

    I think the playground name for that category is “No I’m not, you are.”

  11. #11 nick
    April 27, 2007

    I think the most important thing to recognise in this discussion is that an increase in genetic information through generations is a condition of evolution. This clearly makes evolution impossible considering that the species known as coelocanth (“humanoid anscestor”) remains unchanged (every living thing must change or die out, according to the theory) and that radioactive decay is more condition dependent than time dependent.

  12. #12 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    April 27, 2007

    This clearly makes evolution impossible considering that the species known as coelocanth (“humanoid anscestor”) remains unchanged

    Better check your sources. Recent coelecanth caught by fishermen are not the same species as those found in fossils.

  13. #13 Kevin
    April 27, 2007

    Better check your sources. Recent coelecanth caught by fishermen are not the same species as those found in fossils. Posted by: Mustafa Mond, FCD | April 27, 2007 11:12 AM

    and it dosn’t matter if they were. Your comment is like saying “Why are there still apes if we evolved from apes”

    (hint: apes and homos evolved from a common ancestor)

  14. #14 Lady of Mercy
    May 10, 2007

    I am a professing Christian and I fully believe in the creation. I stumbled across this article while researching for a school paper and I have some things I would like to say.

    First I would like to point out that a lot of people on the web who get into these arguments of Christianity vs. anything else tend to say “Everyone who is a Christian does this…” or “Athiests do that…”. Not everybody who says they are a Christian is a true Christian.

    On to the real topic here, Evolution vs. Creation. “…it is fascinating for the light it shines on the complete phoniness of creationist argumentation. They are children playing with things they don’t understand.” This is rather bold and do you know without a doubt in the world (like the sky is blue) that everyone is this way?

    In order to give a perfect argument, one must have all the information from both sides and know the whole situation. I don’t know everything (who does?), but I know that saying in a very definate way that “You’re wrong, I’m right and that’s the way it is” is not the way to express you faith or opinion in public company. I feel both scientists, Egnor and Ooblog could have responded better and I do not feel Egnor defended my beliefs properly, the way I would do it. Throwing insults back and forth is too childish for people of such intellect.