Another Round on Thermodynamics

Every once in a while the ID folks get into their heads to set-up an actual academic journal. You know, a place where they can lay out all that cutting-edge research kept out of the real journals by dogmatic Darwinian stormtroopers.

These journals invariably founder on their inability to find any scientists willing to write for them. Remember Proceedings in Complexity, Information and Design? It’s been moribund since November 2005. Or how about Origins and Design? That one went belly-up around the turn of the century.

The latest representative of the genre is Anti-Matters. It bills itself as “A quarterly open-access journal addressing issues in science and the humanities from non-materialistic perspectives.”

Somehow I’m not optimistic that this journal will make any splash among scientists. You see, the current issue features an article which — are you sitting down? — revives the second law of thermodynamics argument against evolution.

Actually, it’s even worse than you think. The article’s author, physicist Ulrich Mohrhoff, apparently can not be troubled to formulate his own bad arguments. Instead, he simply parrots the egregiously foolish claims of mathematician Granville Sewell. I have previously dealt with Sewell’s arguments in some detail. Short version: they’re crap.

Incidentally, I don’t choose the word “parrots” lightly. Go read the article to see what I mean. It is little more than a string of quotations taken from Sewell’s writing. As a taste of what you’re in for, here’s part of the abstract:

In a couple of recent publications, Granville Sewell, who is Professor of Mathematics at the University of Texas El Paso, argued that evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics in a spectacular way. Specifically, he noted that if an increase in order is extremely improbable when a system is closed, it is still extremely improbable when the system is open, unless something is entering which makes it much less improbable. The Darwinist’s argument of “compensation” is logically flawed: an extremely improbable event is not rendered less improbable by the occurrence of other events that are more probable.

I’m pretty well-read in this area, but I have never seen that particular “Darwinist” argument. The usual claim is that the second law is a mathematical statement providing a lower bound on the change in entropy of a system in going from one state to another. The dopiest versions of the creationist argument are based on comical misunderstandings of the second law, while the most sophisticated versions are based entirely on hand-waving and bald assertion. If Sewell or Mohrhoff claim evolution violates the second law, it is for them to provide an entropy calculation to back it up. Blathering about what is improbable and what is not simply will not do.

Meanwhile, over at Dembski’s blog, GilDodgen wants to prove he can be as stupid as the big boys. In this post he takes Paul Davies to task for his treatment of the second law on a radio program:

Paul Davies was recently interviewed on the Dennis Prager show, and a caller challenged Davies with the neg-entropic nature of living systems. Paul’s response was the usual: local, open systems can experience decreases in entropy, as long as the overall system experiences an entropy increase. He gave the example of a refrigerator, which can make ice cubes (thus decreasing entropy inside the refrigerator), while the room warms up as a result of the heat pump, thus providing a compensatory entropy increase.

Nice to know GilDodgen is on a first name basis with Mr. Davies. And you’ve just got to love the casual use of technical sounding jargon like “neg-entropic.”

Davies’ answer looks pretty good to me. If the issue is how living bodies can maintain their order in seeming defiance of the second law, it is because they are open systems, and the second law allows for decreases in entropy in such systems. So what’s the problem?

There are two big problems with this line of reasoning.

The first problem is that the refrigerator was designed and contains a machine that takes advantage of the available energy to locally defy entropic tendencies.

I’m sorry, but how is that a problem for Davies’ argument? And what the heck are “entropic tendencies?” Maybe the second big problem will be more to the point:

The second problem is that the order in an ice cube and the order in living systems are not at all analogous. Living systems contain a completely different kind of order, both in degree and in kind: tightly functionally integrated machinery, information encoded in the nucleotides of of the DNA molecule (a symbolic language), and an information-processing machine that decodes and implements the dictates of the symbolic language.

As Granville Sewell has pointed out, the fact that a system is open doesn’t mean that anything can happen, and that the laws of probability are somehow magically suspended.

But the question, as described by GilDodgen, was not about order. It was about entropy, and everywhere outside a child’s view of thermodynamics those are two different things. The second law is about changes in entropy and that is all. Either you have a calculation to show that evolution violates the second law or else you do not really have an argument based on thermodynamics.

At the heart of GilDodgen’s, Sewell’s and Moorhoff’s argument is nothing but the argument from incredulity. They find evolution hard to believe, and that is all. They use the terminology of thermodynamics to spread some fog around the shallowness of their reasoning, but they do not use any of the machinery of that subject.

There’s a reason this is a litmus test argument. It is impossible to simultaneously understand the second law and biological evolution, and honestly claim that the former argues against the latter.

But by this point I would feel cheated to find anything honest in ID writing.

Comments

  1. #1 Blake Stacey
    December 2, 2007

    Man, I’m on an emotional roller-coaster here. “Ooh, Jason Rosenhouse has a new post! Joy joy. I wonder what it’s about.

    “Oh. Creationists blathering about the Second Law.

    “Now I’m sad.”

    “I wouldn’t want my child growing up in a world headed for total heat death and dissolution into a vacuum,” said Kansas state senator Will Blanchard (R-Hutchinson). “No decent parent would want that.”

    Calling the second law of thermodynamics “a deeply disturbing scientific principle that threatens our children’s understanding of God’s universe as a benevolent and loving place,” Blanchard is spearheading a nationwide grassroots campaign to have the law removed from high-school physics textbooks. The plan has already met with significant support in the state legislatures of Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Tennessee, Georgia, and Mississippi.

    “My daughter’s schoolbooks tell her that we live in a world ruled by disorder,” said Knox Heflin, one of several dozen fundamentalists who spoke out against the teaching of the law at a Statesboro (GA) School Board hearing. “That’s a direct contradiction of what it says in the Bible, about how everything is going to get better, and we’ll all live happily up in heaven after the End Times.”

    (From America’s Finest News Source.)

  2. #2 Chris Bell
    December 2, 2007

    So, accepting their position, entropy increases with my own incredulity?

  3. #3 Chris Bell
    December 2, 2007

    And that Onion article reminds me of the state legislature that tried to pass a law saying that pi=4.

  4. #4 Monado, FCD
    December 2, 2007

    Whew! You had me worried there for a minute, Blake! I thought that was serious. It is dead on tone.

  5. #5 Ex-drone
    December 2, 2007

    Anti-Matters seems to feature a number of mystic and Vedic articles. I don’t think the ID crowd will tolerate this editorial world-view, even if they are at a loss for a pseudo-scientific “journal” to publish in.

  6. #6 CleveDan
    December 2, 2007

    couldn’t the billing of the journal be easier written as:
    “A quarterly open-access journal addressing issues in science and the humanities from non-science perspectives.

  7. #7 DV8 2XL
    December 2, 2007

    My word. What a lot of ink is being spilled (figuratively) over this.

    I recall in 1970, a “born again” that taught chemistry at the high school I was attending made the mistake of waving that argument in front of a lecture hall full of senior chem students and was laughed off by the whole room when one student said simply: “The Sun, sir.”

    The point here being that every student present knew enough at that stage to realize just how hollow his argument was, without his critic needing to go into details.

    That this nonsense gets any traction at all and requires detailed rebuttal is a sad reminder of how low basic science education has fallen.

  8. #8 Art
    December 2, 2007

    Think about it. Sewell, Dodgen, the whole lot of IDists frame an argument that asserts that oil and water cannot possibly separate from a completely homogeneous and disordered mixture into two perfectly-separated, highly-ordered phases, at least not without the guiding hand of “intelligence”.

    I think these people are beyond the reach of reason.

  9. #9 Kurt
    December 2, 2007

    Actually, I think there already is a journal that might be suitable for ID articles, at least the ones that make mathematically-based arguments: Rejecta Mathematica.

    No, on second thought, I doubt they could even pass muster over there.

  10. #10 sparc
    December 2, 2007

    Rejecta Mathematica will publish rejected papers, not papers that have been proven to be flawed or fabricated. From Rejecta’s web pages:

    Editorial Policies
    The screening process for publication in Rejecta Mathematica includes no technical peer review (hence the slogan Caveat Emptor). In the open letter, it is expected that the authors will discuss any known flaws in their paper with full and honest disclosure. Our primary editorial focus is to select papers based on their apparent potential interest to researchers in the mathematical sciences. Rejecta Mathematica is a unique social and academic experiment, and the papers we publish will be interesting for a wide variety of (often nontraditional) reasons.

    (emphasis mine)
    Obviously, the editors are not interested in publishing BS that has been debunked time and again.
    I think Rejecta Mathematica is an interesting experiment. However, I don’t know if something like Rejecta Biologica would work.

  11. #11 steve murphy
    December 3, 2007

    In the same issue, I like his review of Beauregard and O’Leary’s spiritual brain where he says that “I doubt that there can be such a thing as a scientific frame of reference for the study of mystical experience”… so much for ID… teh irony!

    (OT: hat tip to Kurt for link to Rejecta Mathematica – this could be quite an entertaining read)

  12. #12 MartinM
    December 3, 2007

    Anti-Matters seems to feature a number of mystic and Vedic articles.

    Indeed, the author of this article, Mohrhoff, is deeply into quantum woo of various kinds, it seems.

  13. #13 MartinM
    December 3, 2007

    Oh, and I see they’re pushing ‘Expelled,’ too. Marvelous.

  14. #14 Dave S.
    December 3, 2007

    Repeat after me Gil…machines cannot defy the second law of thrmodynamics, no matter how ‘designed’ they are. The second law was even proposed in the first place based on energy distributions in designed machines like steam engines and such. Such a machine no more ‘defies’ the second law than my table defies gravity by keeping my pencil from hitting the floor.

    Intelligence cannot defy the second law of thermodynamics either. Whatever energy intelligent agents use to create “order” is more than offset by a corresponding loss of heat and “disorder”.

  15. #15 Ginger Yellow
    December 3, 2007

    “Specifically, he noted that if an increase in order is extremely improbable when a system is closed, it is still extremely improbable when the system is open, unless something is entering which makes it much less improbable. ”

    Hmmm. Sounds familiar. Ah yes:

    “One of the most basic laws in the universe is the Second Law of Thermodynamics. This states that as time goes by, entropy in an environment will increase. Evolution argues differently against a law that is accepted EVERYWHERE BY EVERYONE. Evolution says that we started out simple, and over time became more complex. That just isn’t possible: UNLESS there is a giant outside source of energy supplying the Earth with huge amounts of energy. If there were such a source, scientists would certainly know about it.”

  16. #16 Mark
    December 3, 2007

    The first problem is that the refrigerator was designed and contains a machine that takes advantage of the available energy to locally defy entropic tendencies.

    This is an excellent argument as ice can only be made by machines designed to make ice and is never found in nature.

  17. #17 themann1086
    December 3, 2007

    Ginger,

    Always good to see someone else who follows FSTDT ;)

    I miss the monthly awards :(

  18. #18 mark
    December 3, 2007

    So here it is, December already. Isn’t that when the new journal of Intelligent Design secret scientific research is due to hit the stands? I haven’t heard anything about it in months, not even a solicitation for a subscription.

  19. #19 Bing McGhandi
    December 3, 2007

    The funniest thing ever said by a human, courtesy of the site “Fundies say the darndest things”:

    “One of the most basic laws in the universe is the Second Law of Thermodynamics. This states that as time goes by, entropy in an environment will increase. Evolution argues differently against a law that is accepted EVERYWHERE BY EVERYONE. Evolution says that we started out simple, and over time became more complex. That just isn’t possible: UNLESS there is a giant outside source of energy supplying the Earth with huge amounts of energy. If there were such a source, scientists would certainly know about it.”

    There’s a grandeur in this view of life.

    HJ

  20. #20 JHM
    December 4, 2007

    IMO the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics is not relevant to evolution. Thermodynamics mainly concerns the properties of homogeneous substances — e.g., homogeneous liquids and gases (or, on the microscopic level, the average of the properties of the molecules). Also, the statements of the 2nd Law do not concern evolution — two common statements are the following:

    Kelvin statement: It is impossible to construct an engine, operating in a cycle, whose sole effect is receiving heat from a single reservoir and the performance of an equivalent amount of work.

    Clausius statement: It is impossible to carry out a cyclic process, using an engine connected to two heat reservoirs, that will have as its only effect the transfer of a quantity of heat from the low-temperature reservoir to the high-temperature reservoir

    I think that a good illustration of the effect of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics is a closed system with two finite reservoirs at different temperatures plus an engine — say, a Carnot engine — that performs work by operating in a cycle in which heat is received from the hot reservoir in one stage of the cycle and heat is transferred to the cold reservoir in another stage. As the work is performed, the hot reservoir becomes cooler and the cold reservoir becomes warmer, and as a result of these temperature changes the engine becomes increasingly less efficient (in a Carnot engine with an ideal gas as the working substance, the efficiency is defined as the ratio of (1) the temperature difference of the reservoirs to (2) the absolute temperature of the hot reservoir). Eventually a point is reached where the temperature difference between the two reservoirs is so small that practically no work can be performed at all. However, according to the First Law of Thermodynamics, the total internal energy of the closed system is the same as it was at the beginning. What has changed is that this energy is no longer capable of performing work inside the system because that energy is now uniformly scattered in the form of a uniform temperature throughout the system whereas a difference in reservoir temperatures is required to perform work. The system has changed from an ordered system — where the higher-energy gas particles in the hotter reservoir are separated from the lower-energy gas particles in the colder reservoir — to a disordered system where the gas-particle energy is uniformly distributed throughout the system. This increase in disorder is represented by an increase in the total entropy of the system.

  21. #21 Richard Wein
    December 5, 2007

    Jason: “At the heart of GilDodgen’s, Sewell’s and Moorhoff’s argument is nothing but the argument from incredulity. They find evolution hard to believe, and that is all. They use the terminology of thermodynamics to spread some fog around the shallowness of their reasoning, but they do not use any of the machinery of that subject.”

    This becomes particularly clear when Sewell comments:
    “Given the existence of a planet and a nearby star, is it extremely improbable that devices capable of flying to the moon and back, or of sending pictures and sound to the opposite side of the planet, or of adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing numbers to high accuracy, would develop over the years? I believe it IS astronomically improbable; if it isn’t, then there’s no violation of the principle behind the second law here.

    It’s a really simple argument.”

    So, the second law does no work in his argument against evolution. The alleged violation of the second law is merely a corollorary that supposedly follows after he has already decided (on the basis of personal incredulity) that evolution is astronomically improbable.

  22. #22 Richard Wein
    December 5, 2007

    Oops… for “corollorary”, read “corollary”. ;)

    And, of course, I don’t accept that it actually would be a corollary. Not everything that’s vastly improbable is a violation of the second law. The second law doesn’t say I can’t toss a thousand heads in a row, thought that’s so improbable as to be effectively impossible.

  23. #23 Chris Tucker
    December 15, 2007

    The noted theoretical astrophysicist/Gangsta Rapper MC Hawking has a rhyme on the subject:

    Creationists always try to use the second law,
    to disprove evolution, but their theory has a flaw.
    The second law is quite precise about where it applies,
    only in a closed system must the entropy count rise.
    The earth’s not a closed system’ it’s powered by the sun,
    so (bleep) the damn creationists, Doomsday get my gun!

    You know, it’s sad when some fellow with a speech synthesizer and a clever idea, has a surer grasp of science than far too many elected officials.

  24. #24 jesse
    January 4, 2008

    Hi there,
    If some of you guys are interrested in watching some videos
    on the subject of Creation vs Evolution i’ve copied a link below.
    If you are open minded to believing in creation and god then go ahead
    and watch these 7 seminars. Start by watching video #1 “the age of the earth”.
    and watch them in sequence…But i warn you…If you watch all these
    vidoes you will probably believe in god …If you dont want to believe
    in god like alot of people then dont watch this!! Thank you!!

    http://www.drdino.com/downloads.php

  25. #25 ?apka
    July 24, 2008

    Oh, and I see they’re pushing ‘Expelled,’ too. Marvelous.