Pharyngula

As you’ve probably heard, Stephen Meyer of the Discovery Institute published a book last year calle Signature in the Cell. It stunk, it got virtually no reviews from the scientific community, although it was avidly sucked up by the fans of Intelligent Design creationism. One curious thing about the book is that it has sunk out of sight already, which is a bit peculiar and a bit disappointing for an explanation that was promised to revitalize ID.

Remember Michael Behe’s book, Darwin’s Black Box? I’ll give Behe credit, that one was well-marketed and got the brief attention of many scientists, who read it bogglingly, recognizing quickly that it was poor fare written by someone with no idea of what was going on in evolutionary biology and genetics. But at least it was quick and punchy, and had some great PR slogans that still get thrown around — ‘irreducible complexity’, anyone?

Meyer’s book had none of that. It’s a bloated paperweight, full of self-indulgent preening by Meyer, and without a single novel idea in it — it’s simply the most unmemorable, uninteresting pile of schlock the DI has turned out yet.

And I think the DI knew it. As mentioned before, the marketing was awful — they worked hard to keep it out of the hands of scientists who might review it ahead of time, which was an awful mistake. Even if we were pretty much guaranteed to trash it, it would be publicity — look again at Darwin’s Black Box. If there was even a hint of controversy in the text, the best move would have been to fan it. But no…it is the most boringly tedious mess, and the only stories they got were scientists rolling their eyes in boredom.

Recently, reviews have trickled in…all negative. So what does the Discovery Institute do? Would you believe they have published a whole book titled Signature Of Controversy: Responses to Critics of Signature in the Cell? It’s only 105 pages long, so it’s a more digestible read than Meyer’s book, and it’s also a free download.

It’s impressive. It’s a bad idea to spend too much time responding to criticisms, but the staff at the DI have been so peevish that they’ve written an entire book in an angry tone (hah! Tone!) in ineffectual reply. Here’s an example of their cranky wit, from an introduction in which they classify their critics as either “distinguished scientists who haven’t read the book” or “pygmies who populate the furious, often obscene Darwinist blogs”.

For example, Jerry Coyne is a University of Chicago biologist who lately seems to spend most of his time blogging. Yet he clearly belongs among the ranks of the more distinguished writers who bashed Meyer’s book without reading it or reading about it. On the other hand, such an individual as blogger Jeffrey Shallit, mathematician at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada–not to be confused with the University of Wallamaloo of Monty Python fame–may object to being classed as a pygmy. Oh well. Sorry.

That’s fairly typical of how they handle their critics: if they’re a big name in the field, claim that they’ve never read the book; if they’re less well known, point out that they aren’t associated with the big name universities like the University of Chicago or Harvard. I even get this treatment in their brief section on me, who gets both barrels of their dual strategy:

All the people who hate Meyer’s book appear not to have read it. So too we have the complaint of Darwinian-atheist agitator P. Z. Myers, a popular blogger and biologist. Myers explains that he was unable to read the book, which he slimes as a “stinker” and as “drivel,” due to his not having received a promised free review copy! But rest assured. The check is in the mail: “I suppose I’ll have to read that 600 page pile of slop sometime… maybe in January.”

Dr. Myers teaches at the Morris, Minnesota, satellite campus of the University of Minnesota, a college well known as the Harvard of Morris, Minnesota. So you know when he evaluates a book and calls it “slop,” a book on which he has not laid on eye, that’s a view that carries weight.

In all seriousness, what is this with people having any opinion at all of a book that, allow me to repeat, they haven’t read and of which, as with Jerry Coyne, they admit they haven’t so much as read a review?

It’s true that I hadn’t read the book when I wrote that, and it’s also true that they had pre-empted many of their potential critics by promising a review copy and never delivering. They still haven’t sent the promised copy, but I did buy one — used, for cheap — and actually did read it last January. I’d also seen the reviews and found the absence of any substantive content in the descriptions telling. Since reading it, which was a genuinely agonizing experience since Meyer is such a pretentious writer who goes on and on at painful length about nothing at all, I have to tell you that my summary was spot-on.

I haven’t posted a review because, honestly, it’s a book guaranteed to inspire nothing but ennui. There isn’t one solid nugget of substance or even sharply defined ideas, no matter how wrong, in the entire pile of sludge. I can, however, pull up a summary from near the end of the book, in Meyer’s own words. This is the logical edifice on which his story is based. See if you can spot the flaws.

  • Despite a thorough search, no material causes have been discovered that demonstrate the power to produce large amounts of specified information.

  • Intelligent causes have demonstrated the power to produce large amounts of specified information.

  • Intelligent design constitutes the best, most causally adequate, explanation for information in the cell.

You’ll notice the key phrase in there is “specified information”. I looked through the whole book for a definition. There is none. Well, that’s not quite true: I did find this sentence:

The term specified complexity is, therefore, a synonym for specified information or information content.

Whoa. One vague tautology is all he’s got to back that up. Notice how revealing that is about his first point above: his entire book peddles this idea that no one has demonstrated a natural mechanism for producing specified information. But of course, any one with any competence in this subject can tell you all kinds of ways a genome can produce increases in information, the kind that has a few mathematical definitions and is measurable, so Meyer tosses in that magic modifier, specified, to throw away a big chunk of the literature that troublingly contradicts him.

If it helps to grasp the rhetorical game he’s playing, just substitute the word “magic” for “specified”. It’s perfectly equivalent.

  • Despite a thorough search, no material causes have been discovered that demonstrate the power to produce large amounts of magic information.

  • Intelligent causes have demonstrated the power to produce large amounts of magic information.

  • Intelligent design constitutes the best, most causally adequate, explanation for information in the cell.

Better?

In those terms, his first point is correct but uninteresting. Material causes do not produce magic information, but so what? They do produce mundane information, and that’s all we need to describe a cell. Meyer also fails to demonstrate that cells contain any magic information in the first place.

Now, though, it also ruins his second point. I would cheerfully concede that intelligent processes can change the information content in a cell, and would have agreed with him on one third of his syllogism…but, unfortunately, I know of no way to produce magic information, since Meyer hasn’t bothered to define it.

And his final point is both nonsense and dishonest. Note that he has left the specified magic qualifier off the word information this time; it’s a cheap sleight of hand. Even so, though, to accept his conclusion requires accepting a false premise, that natural process have not been demonstrated to produce new information, and therefore we have to accept his claim that ID is the best explanation around.

Really, that’s all there is, that’s the core of that 600 page behemoth of noise. It is most unpersuasive. Perhaps that’s why they’ve had to produce a lengthy, carping criticism of their critics.

But don’t let me give you the wrong impression: they only mentioned me in a few paragraphs, and you’ve just seen everything they had to say about me. The bulk of the book is dedicated to a few people who have made some telling criticisms: Francisco Ayala, Darrel Falk, Jeffrey Shallit, and Steve Matheson (I must also mention AG Hunt, who also has some great critiques…but got ignored by the DI). In particular, I recommend Shallit as someone who actually knows information theory well and does a fine job describing how Meyer butchers it; I also have to recommend Matheson’s amazingly thorough chapter-by-chapter dissection of the book. If anything should be published, it’s those blog entries, which neatly expose the dishonesty and ignorance that permeates every page of Meyer’s hackwork. I don’t know how he did it, because Signature in the Cell was exasperatingly boring to me, and after reading it twice I never want anything more to do with it ever again. Maybe Matheson has discovered one virtue to religion (he’s a Calvinist biologist, by the way): it teaches one how to pore over meaningless, badly written texts without lapsing into a coma.