Good Math, Bad Math

Casey Luskin, Proud Idiot

So, over at the DI’s media complains department (aka evolutionnews.org), it appears that Casey Luskin has noticed how we SBers have managed to tear apart his buddy Dr. Egnor. Given that we did it so thoroughly, though, there’s no legitimate way to defend him. He’s repeatedly made incredibly idiotic statements, and many people have, quite rightfully, called him on the stupidity of his statements, the degree of ignorance that he’s demonstrated, and his astonishing arrogance as he spouts nonsense.

But since when have Casey and friends at the DI ever worried about
doing the right thing? Or responding to any kind of argument in a legitimate way?

So for humour’s sake, I thought I’d address the part of Casey’s post that was directed at me.:

One Darwinist was so angry that he wrote in response to Egnor, “I’m deliberately not linking to the [Egnor interview] podcast; I will not help increase the hit-count that DI will use to promote it’s [sic] agenda of willful ignorance.” I’ll gladly link to this Darwinist because this Darwinist mathematician’s irrelevant stammering about the definition of tautology never addresses Egnor’s point that we don’t really need Darwin to achieve the mundane insight that bacteria which are immune to drugs are going to survive. The mathematician’s angry tone proves Egnor’s private statement to me: “Chesterton once wrote that insanity isn’t a matter of losing your reason, but of losing everything but your reason” (oh yeah, and the Egnor podcast is here). Still, one thing is still missing from Darwinist reason: a satisfactory answer to Egnor’s simple question, How much information can actually be produced by Darwinian mechanisms?

Let’s see… I’ve already addressed the tautology thing, right? Any statement about a phenomenon that can be inferred from observations of that phenomenon can be restated as a tautology. It does nothing to delegitimize explanations of the phenomenon; it’s just a
goofy way of formulating a statement in a form that makes it easy to dismiss because it looks silly. “Bacteria that survive when exposed to antibiotics are going to survive when exposed to antibiotics” is a true statement. Which doesn’t explain much of anything about the reasons why antibiotic resistance in bacteria is such a big issue in recent years.

As I’ve explained twice so far, (once in the tautology post, and once here) 20 years ago, MRSA was not a big issue; VRSA hadn’t even been observed outside of the laboratory; and resistance to both methicillin and vancomycin was absolutely unheard of. Now we’re commonly observing bacteria that are fully resistant to methicillin, and at least partially resistant to vancomycin in the wild. Not infections acquired in the hospital, but common infections acquired in the community.

This is a dramatic change. And it’s not just one of academic interest: people are dying as a result of this. Thousands of people in the US alone died last year of antibiotic resistant infections: the rate of death from bacterial infections in hospitals in the US has gone from 13,300 in 1992 to 90,000 now – and that is only considering the infections acquired in the hospital. This is an incredibly important thing, which every doctor needs to be aware of, and many common medical practices need to be reconsidered or restructured in light of this.

Dr. Egnor, and Casey Luskin – they can’t explain it. The crucial facts about antibiotic resistance – the ways it changes, the patterns of human behavior that lead to antibiotic resistance, the ways in which the resistance genes are spreading – these things cannot be explained by Egnor or Luskin. So they take refuge behind mocking words and claims of tautology, as if those somehow explain something. They don’t.

And the “question” that Casey inserts at the end is another example of the dishonesty of Dr. Egnor. He continually makes demands that someone define for him exactly how evolution produces new information, and exactly how much information it can produce. The reason that that’s dishonest is because the question has been answered – people have shown him how, using Shannon information theory, they can demonstrate how a random evolutionary process can create new information, and how to quantify the information created by some particular documented mutations. Egnor handwaves that off by saying that he isn’t asking about Shannon information, but about biological information – which he refuses to define.

So Casey’s complaint about the unanswered question is actually completely phony. It’s a complaint that we haven’t provided him with an answer to an unanswerable question. Until Dr. Egnor bothers to actually define what “biological information” is in a quantifiable way, there is no way to answer a question about how “biological information” is created.

I can ask Dr. Egnor how, exactly, antibiotic resistance can spread through a population in terms of snerglic logic? Of course, he can’t answer it. What’s snerglic logic? Hell, I can even ask him to explain it in terms of snerglic temporal logic – which gives him a clue of what kind of logic I’m looking for. But any possible answer that he could provide, I can shoot down by saying “That’s not snerglic logic”. That’s exactly the trick he’s playing: we mathematical types can do as much work as we want defining and quantifying
the information that describes a living cell, and show exactly how the various processes that take place in evolution can produce information, and quantify exactly how much information can be created by various processes. But no matter how thorough we are, no matter how precisely quantified, no matter how bulletproof the argument, Egnor can simply
wave his hands and say “But that’s mathematical information, not biological information“. Until his defines his term, it’s not a real question.

And finally, I just have to comment on the Luskin’s closing:

In the end, I can cheerfully forgive Kevin Beck, but two questions remain: (1) Why is such name-calling so common among Darwinists? and (2) How do Darwinian mechanisms produce truly novel biological information? I’ve seen no good answers to question 2, and perhaps their lack of such a good answer is driving the observations behind question (1).

There’s something incredibly rich about someone from the DI complaining about name-calling. This is the organization where one of its most prestigious fellows proudly provided a fart-filled squeaky voiced soundtrack to a mocking video of a judge who wrote a ruling he didn’t like.

Comments

  1. #1 mollishka
    March 28, 2007

    I especially like how they make sure to put [sic]‘s in their quotes… “zomg look!!! he made a typo!!! so he MUST be stupid!” Yrrgh.

  2. #2 RBH
    March 28, 2007

    Science Notes has a handy compendium of the various blog dissections of Egnor.

  3. #3 romunov
    March 29, 2007

    It sounds like that by calling people “Darwinist”, he tries to insult. Does he really think it works?
    Sure, maybe on a few percent of Americans, but go to the East side of the Atlantic…

  4. #4 386sx
    March 29, 2007

    Still, one thing is still missing from Darwinist reason: a satisfactory answer to Egnor’s simple question, How much information can actually be produced by Darwinian mechanisms?

    The Discovery Institute scientists are probably working on that one right now as we speak. I’m sure they’ll let everybody know as soon as they find out. No worries!

  5. #5 Jud
    March 29, 2007

    Actually, I don’t think you go quite far enough regarding Egnor’s, Luskin’s and Dembski’s definitional legerdemain concerning information. You’re of course absolutely right that “complex specified” or “biological” information has equivalent scientific meaning to “cherry vanilla” information. But Dembski, et al., go beyond simply throwing out undefined terms.

    As Luskin quotes Dembski, the sort of information he is looking for that evolution just can’t provide is the sort evidenced by an “arrangement [that] conforms to the right sort of pattern to eliminate chance.” So the type of information that chance mutation (plus selection) can’t provide is the type of information that can’t be caused by chance. (Speaking of tautologies….)

    So it ain’t just “snerglic logic.” It’s “I define snerglic logic as a logic other than the type you’re using.”

    Dembski’s example of “the right sort of pattern to eliminate chance” is a pattern of stones that spells out an English sentence. How we are supposed to recognize the equivalent of an English sentence in the makeup of living things, short of vindication of Sal Cordova’s “DNA steganography” theory, I have no idea.

    (Of course, all too typically, an English sentence is a horrible example to use, since the symbols we call letters and their arrangement into “words” and “sentences” in the language we call English has no intrinsic meaning beyond what a particular group of people has effectively consented to assign to it. A pattern of 1, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, etc., stones – now *that* might be a bit more interesting, though I suppose there’s some question whether the concept of primes or even numbers has intrinsic meaning.)

  6. #6 Jud
    March 29, 2007

    Sorry, 1, *2*, 3, 5, 7….

  7. #7 krisztian pinter
    March 29, 2007

    i like the question: “Why is such name-calling so common among Darwinists?”

    which basically can be rephrased to “why they all call me stupid?”

    well. there is a kind of obvious explanation to it.

  8. #8 Troublesome Frog
    March 29, 2007

    Luskin:

    How much information can actually be produced by Darwinian mechanisms?

    Any amount you want, depending on how the DI defines “information” to suit its argument, apparently. I too am disappointed by MarkCC’s inability to explain the obvious abundance of an undefinable quantity.

  9. #9 feynsteyn
    March 30, 2007

    @Jud:

    Sorry, 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, …

  10. #10 jud
    March 30, 2007

    feynsteyn: Urgh, thanks. 34 years to forget what I learned since my last math class is definitely showing.

  11. #11 Jud
    March 30, 2007

    feynsteyn:

    Scientist #1 – “Look at these rocks! First 1, then 2, then 3, 5, 7….”

    Scientist #2 – “Yeah, but it includes 1; obviously no intelligent life here.”

  12. #12 Jonathan Vos Post
    March 30, 2007

    Finding prime numbers in organisms doesn’t mean Intelligent Design. Quite the contrary, it supports evolution by natural selection.

    The periods of cicadas are typically a prime number of years, including the 17-year cicada. The Natural Selection argument runs (crudely) like this. Predators may have their own multi-year cycles. So if a cicada-eaing bird,, say, has a population which is larger every other year, then cicadas on the same length and phase are in a really bad situation. But some other predator might have a 3-year cycle. So the best fitness may arise from a cycle of a larger prime number of years, to avoid being “found” in time by predators with various cycles.

    Google for more, I’m not feeling like inserting lots of references here.

    Different mechanisms account for the Fibonacci numbers in the arrangement of leaves and flowers.

    If we saw a pulsar perturbed by the sequence of prime numbers, or a gravity wave with the sequence of prime numbers, I admit that I’d be tempted to hypothesize and advanced civilization as Designer of that astrophysical phenomenon. But, of course, I’m also a professional science fiction writer, which is a kind of bias.

  13. #13 Norm Breyfogle
    March 31, 2007

    Mark CC wrote, “But no matter how thorough we are, no matter how precisely quantified, no matter how bulletproof the argument, Egnor can simply wave his hands and say “But that’s mathematical information, not biological information”. Until he defines his term, it’s not a real question.”

    Well, it’s not a real *scientific* question. But it’s a real philosophical question – or it at least implies one – because, until anyone can literally build a fully functioning biological organism from nothingness (or at least from pure energy, whatever that might mean), we won’t really know *exactly* how closely our models of the development of biological life match the actuality.

    This debate illustrates a common type: one party (in this case Egnor, perhaps feeling that his religious beliefs are threatened by the theory of evolution) erroneously implies that a theory must possess perfect predictive power to be valid, while the other party (in this case Mark CC) asserts that any question which is unanswerable is meaningless or unreal (when he may have meant only that such questions are unscientific).

    (Btw, I’d immediately give the winner’s prize in this debate to Mark CC because, not only is Egnor ignorant, but these are science blogs, after all – not religion or philosophy blogs – and the IDists are trying to gain scientific respectibility for their philosophical and religious assumptions by sneaking them into the scientific sphere where they don’t belong).

    The real but unscientific and unanswerable question implied by Egnor’s assertions is, “What are the fully accurate and exhaustively precise mechanisms of the development of life and/or the cosmos?” It’s unfair and stupid to demand that any scientific theory be capable of answering such a question in order to be called “valid”, but it’s still a “real” question, as is the concomittent ID question (it’s just not a *scientific* question).

    As I’ve expressed many places: the question of whether or not Intelligent Design is involved in the development of life or the Cosmos isn’t answerable by science, but it is a legitimate philosophical question. IDists (like Egnor) tend to confuse the sphere of philosophy, religion, and metaphor with that of science. Such a confusion is at the very core of many dogmatisms.

    Many people, scientists included, are suspsectible to this same confusion. Note the antagonism from some scientific minds over the tautological axiom of solpsism, indicating a misunderstanding of the entirely non-science-threatening nature of such. Note the scientific often expressed toward anyone who merely refers to the infinite in any of its various manifestations (which, again, doesn’t threaten science per sec). Note the # of scientific mindsets that erroneously believe an exhaustively accurate and precise TOE or GUT is actually achievable. All such examples reveal a confusing of the map with the territory.

    Sorry for what must appear to some to be redundant semantic nitpicking from me, but sometimes it seems that’s what I do best, and it seems to me that if this basic map/territory confusion could be universally cleared up for everyone, there’d be a heck of a lot less friction between religious believers and scientists.

  14. #14 Mark C. Chu-Carroll
    March 31, 2007

    Norm:

    This debate illustrates a common type: one party (in this case Egnor, perhaps feeling that his religious beliefs are threatened by the theory of evolution) erroneously implies that a theory must possess perfect predictive power to be valid, while the other party (in this case Mark CC) asserts that any question which is unanswerable is meaningless or unreal (when he may have meant only that such questions are unscientific).

    I strongly disagree with the way you’ve characterized this. I’m not objecting to the notion that there might be some special part of the information that defines an organism which defines its properties as a living thing. And I’m not saying that Egnor’s question is meaningless because we don’t know what, if any, part of an organisms description is accurately identified as ‘biological information’.

    My point has been that Egnor is deliberately using an undefined term as a foil – it sets him up in a position where he can continually issue his challenge, and no one can ever respond to it – because it’s been structured in a way where he can deny the validity of any response out of hand.

    As I’ve said before – I can ask how intelligent design
    can explain how organisms can possess so much shmeglomorph – after all, shmeglomorph is clearly *undesigned*, and so since all organisms contain shmeglomorph as a necesary component, that means that intelligent design must be wrong. All anyone needs to do to prove me wrong is either explain where the shmeglomorph came from, or show that organisms don’t really require shmeglomorph.

    How can you respond to that argument? I haven’t told you what shmeglomorph is; I haven’t told you how I know that organisms contain shmeglomorph. But I can (deceptively) continue to harp on the fact that dammit, no IDist can explain where the shmeglomorph came from, and that proves that I’m right!

    That’s exactly Egnor’s argument, except that he didn’t use a deliberately silly term like “shmeglomorph”. He started by using “information”, and when it turned out that there was a rock-solid argument about how evolution produces information, he just changed it to “biological information”, and refused to define the term. Since then, he just responds to any attempt to answer his challenge with “But what you talk about in your argument – that’s not biological information”. He never tells you what it actually is, because then he’d have to be willing to actually *defend* his claim that it can’t be created by evolution.

  15. #15 Norm Breyfogle
    April 1, 2007

    Imo, your above post largely agreed with me, Mark. Or at least, I agree with your above post.

    In any case, it’s clear – as I wrote – that you’re correct and Egnor is incorrect. When it comes to you, I was just nitpicking over one word in your semantics (“real” as in “real question”) when you could have written (“real *scientific* question”). And I shouldn’t have done that, since my own comments here are full of questionable semantics!

    No one knows what “shmeglomorph” is (though it does sound partly yiddish). Likewise, no one knows with absolute certainty the ultimate nature of existence, and any windows of ignorance, any holes at all in any scientific theory whatsoever no matter how small, will be seized upon as psychologically supportive by those naively trying to find scientific elbow room for their essentially religious beliefs. We should just call ‘em on it in an educational manner (which is essentially what you were doing and I apologize for my nitpicking).

    The real point of my posts on this thread is that Egnor and the IDists apparently think they’re being scientific when in fact they’re confusing philosophy or religion for science. If they could make this distinction much more clearly, it seems to me they’d have no real or direct beef with evolution.

  16. #16 Torbjörn Larsson
    April 1, 2007

    I also think there are some mischaracterization here. Scientific theories are strong because they describe and predict observations. We have a theory describing how life as a phenomena behaves without primarily needing the concept of information but using easily observed characters.

    So Egnor has several problems. Why do we need information here, how should it be defined, and how should it be observed?

    For example, I can look at an animal and note the number and construction of its appendages, and which alleles affect this. I can also do this for its relatives, and note the rate of evolution, frequencies of alleles et cetera. It is far harder to say how much information (not to mention ID’s shmeglomorph :-) is exhibited and how it changes.

    Not that information isn’t interesting and may perhaps be needed to answer some specific questions. But it seems to not be needed anywhere today, and yet evolution is an old and well tested theory.

    until anyone can literally build a fully functioning biological organism from nothingness (or at least from pure energy, whatever that might mean), we won’t really know *exactly* how closely our models of the development of biological life match the actuality.

    We should be able to know the mismatch in most cases, it is measurable. And primarily this seems to confuse abiogenesis with evolution. For example, we don’t need to construct a puddle of liquid atom by atom, or a galaxy, to know how closely our models of them match the actuality.

    any question which is unanswerable is meaningless or unreal

    This is slightly mischaracterized. Any isolated question which can be shown to rely on unobservable phenomena or is otherwise unanswerable is meaningless. But there are unanswerable questions in some models that we may have to live with. Singularities comes to mind.

    The points about infinities (not observable) and TOE (not shown to be unachievable) seems also to be unorthodox interpretations of science views. And solipsism is philosophy…

  17. #17 Norm Breyfogle
    April 1, 2007

    I have no disagreements with your above post, either, Torbjörn.

  18. #18 Norm Breyfogle
    April 3, 2007

    However, this:

    “For example, we don’t need to construct a puddle of liquid atom by atom, or a galaxy, to know how closely our models of them match the actuality.”

    brings up again the question of tautological solipsism/subjectivity. If by “actuality” you mean perceptually predictive phenomenon and their interactions, your above statement which I quoted is scientifically correct (which is why I agreed with it), but if by “actuality” you mean their *fundamental* natures, well, we arguably can’t “know” that. This is why I emphasized the word “exactly” right here:

    ” …until anyone can literally build a fully functioning biological organism from nothingness (or at least from pure energy, whatever that might mean), we won’t really know *exactly* how closely our models of the development of biological life match the actuality.”

    Just more nit-picking. You can ignore me. =)

  19. #19 Torbjörn Larsson
    April 3, 2007

    but if by “actuality” you mean their *fundamental* natures, well, we arguably can’t “know” that.

    Strictly it isn’t nitpicking. However I wasn’t arguing Truth, but about matching models with actual observations. If you meant the former by “actuality”, it is another discussion, which I rather not have here.

  20. #20 Norm Breyfogle
    April 3, 2007

    No worries.

  21. #21 Jonathan Vos Post
    April 4, 2007

    There’s a Creationist version of an old joke hidden behind this Egnor quote:

    ” …until anyone can literally build a fully functioning biological organism from nothingness (or at least from pure energy, whatever that might mean), we won’t really know *exactly* how closely our models of the development of biological life match the actuality.”

    The old joke runs something like this, if I may completely rewrite it here and now:

    The greatest wizard in the world took to boasting that his magic was as powerful as that of any of the gods of Mount Olympus.

    So Zeus descended to the ground and confronted the wizard.

    “Hubris!” said Zeus, in tones that shook the ground. “How dare you, puny mortal, claim to be as great as the gods?”

    “Because I am not an arrogant astronomer or gibbering geometer,” said the wizard. “I am, in fact, the greatest wizard in the world.”

    Zeus was even more annoyed now. “I don’t care if you’re a babbling biologist,” he said. “To say ‘I am the greatest wizard in the world because I am the greatest wizard in the world’ is a tautology. If you really are as powerful as a god, this must be empirically demonstrated.”

    “I can do that,” said the wizard.

    “Okay,” said Zeus, “can you do this?” He hurled a thunderbolt that split a large olive tree in half.

    “You bet,” said the wizard. “My name is TIM!” and he pointed his arm at another olive tree. It looked suspiciously like an antiaircraft missile shooting out of his capacious sleeve but, be that as it may, the other olive tree was split in half.

    “But,” said Zeus, “can you do this?” Zeus snapped his fingers and suddenly was a giant swan.”

    “Take me to your Leda,” said the wizard. Then he snapped his fingers and suddenly was a giant swan.”

    Both swans returned to their original forms in a one-to-one mapping, as Zeus and wizard.

    “Not bad for a mortal,” said Zeus, “but can you create life?” Zeus leaned over, picked up a handful of dirt in his huge hands, spat into it, molded the mud into the shape of a bird, and suddently the bird sprouted feathers and flew away, up into the azure sky.

    The wizard smiled. He leaned over, grabbed up a handful of dirt in his human hands, spat into it, molded the mud into the shape of a bird, and suddently the bird sprouted feathers and flew away, up into the azure sky.

    “Not good enough,” said Zeus. “Until you can start with your own dirt!”

    and the Creationist version is as in:
    http://blog.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=blog.view&friendID=58897507&blogID=117845386&Mytoken=1778F7EC-0930-4318-838172A3DD1298B2138397062
    “One day a group of scientists got together and decided that man had come a long way and no longer needed God….”

    There is a shred of scientific merit hiding under the tautologies and jokes. It will be a breakthrough when scientists can actually, in the laboratory, create (in vitro) a living cell entirely from synthesized materials, and not takn from previously living cells.

    Before that, scientists will probably need to make a simulation (in silico) of a living cell, digital, with single-atom resolution. But several teams are working towards exactly that goal.

  22. #22 Norm Breyfogle
    April 4, 2007

    That wasn’t an Egnor quote you quoted, JVP; it was a Norm Breyfogle quote. And I don’t like being mistaken for an IDist.

    =)

    In my posts on this particular thread (and others) I was attempting to couch the debate between IDists and mainstream scientists in universal philosophical semantics. As a culture and noosphere we still seem to have a way to go in doing this. Hence, the common mistaking of philosophical, religious, and other metaphorical semantics with more denotatiove scientific semantics, and the ensuing, unecessary debates that arise. And though this mistake is undoubtedly more common on the side of the IDists, it’s also fairly common among scientists and other ultra-rationalists.

  23. #23 Andrew
    April 4, 2007

    JVP,

    I agree that synthesising life would be a scientific breakthrough. However, to even approach the power of God you need to be able to do it with no raw materials at all.

  24. #24 Norm Breyfogle
    April 6, 2007

    But any “God” didn’t create from nothingness, either. “He” created from “himself.” Unless you consider God to be nothingness?

    Andrew, in your view, did God create himself? If he was always here, what did he do for the eternity before he created his first universe? He’d have been infinitely lonely for eternity, wouldn’t he? Wouldn’t that drive anyone stark, raving mad? Or has he been creating universes for all eternity? In other words, was there no first universe? Or does God not have a sense of time at all? Is he composed of energy? What is spirit? Either it’s some form of energy or else it’s a metaphor, or both … I can’t even conceive of any other choices. Can you?

    Why do we need a biblical God? Certainly not for scientific or even philosophical explanatory purposes. If we say God was always there, why can’t we say that about the universe or multiverse?

    What is “omnipotence, omnipresence, omniscience,” if not a metaphorical description of existence itself? Trying to conceive of an individual awareness of any type with these properites leads to direct logical contradictions.

    For all the above reasons and many more, I consider the true God to be tautologically solipisistic, infinitely trancendental existence itself. In other words, there is no ultimate God separate from the interpenetrative wholeness of existence in which each part of existence translogically encompasses all other parts (like a hologram but with infinite resolution). Not science, this is the only way the God concept will permanently survive rational analysis: translogically, poetically, metaphorically, tautologically.

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