More Gibberish About Thermodynamics

Over at Uncommon Descent, there's a bit of a kerfuffle going on about the second law of thermodynamics. Salvador Cordova got the ball rolling back in July with this barn-burner of a post excoriating his fellow ID proponent Granville Sewell for making bad thermodynamical arguments:

ID proponents and creationists should not use the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics to support ID. Appropriate for Independence Day in the USA is my declaration of independence and disavowal of 2nd Law arguments in support of ID and creation theory. Any student of statistical mechanics and thermodynamics will likely find Granville Sewell’s argument and similar arguments not consistent with textbook understanding of these subjects, and wrong on many levels. With regrets for my dissent to my colleagues (like my colleague Granville Sewell) and friends in the ID and creationist communities, I offer this essay. I do so because to avoid saying anything would be a disservice to the ID and creationist community of which I am a part.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, I don’t think Granville Sewell 2nd law arguments are correct.

Wow! Pardon my surprise, but that's actually pretty good.

There have been several more rounds, culminating with this post from Sewell. It's remarkable stuff. Here's the money quote:

If you insist on limiting the second law to applications involving thermal entropy, and that the only entropy is thermal entropy, than Sal is right that the second law has little to say about the emergence of life on Earth. But it is not just the “creationists” who apply it much more generally, many violent opponents of ID (including Asimov, Dawkins, Styer and Bunn) agree that this emergence does represent a decrease in “entropy” in the more general sense, they just argue that this decrease is compensated by increases outside our open system, an argument that is so widely used that I created the video below, Evolution is a Natural Process Running Backward to address it a few months ago.

In case you missed it, that's Sewell conceding defeat. That first sentence is a doozy. When you are talking about the second law of thermodynamics, there is only one kind of entropy. The issue is not that some unimaginative critics of ID simply refuse to apply the second law in its full generality. It is that the second law is a very specific statement regarding the magnitude of the change in entropy that can occur in certain physical processes, and if you understand that statement then you also understand that neither evolution nor the origin of life runs afoul of it. That's the end of the discussion.

The rest of Sewell's paragraph is the sheerest lunacy. For example, his reference to Asimov is to this quote, from earlier in his post:

We have to work hard to straighten a room, but left to itself, it becomes a mess again very quickly and very easily … How difficult to maintain houses, and machinery, and our own bodies in perfect working order; how easy to let them deteriorate. In fact, all we have to do is nothing, and everything deteriorates, collapses, breaks down, wears out—all by itself—and that is what the second law is all about.

This is not Asimov “applying” the second law to the problem of straightening out a room. This is him making an analogy to help lay readers understand the gist of the second law.

Moreover, when scientists refer to the origin of life as representing a decrease in entropy, they are not applying some generalized version of the second law to problems beyond the original domain of its formulation. They are simply saying that even if we make the assumptions about the entropy change involved in the origin and evolution of life that are the most favorable to the anti-evolution side, you are still nowhere close to obtaining a contradiction with the second law. That the second law allows for local decreases of entropy so long as they are offset by increases elsewhere is not some desperation argument summoned forth by anti-ID propagandists. That's just a straightforward consequence of what the second law says.

Elsewhere in the post, Sewell serves up his usual silliness about other forms of entropy:

Thermodynamics texts, as opposed to general physics texts, tend to shy away from them for that reason. Goodness knows, if we watch a video of a tornado tearing through a town, it is so difficult to quantify what we are seeing that we can never be sure if the video is running forward or backward, or if entropy is increasing or decreasing. But there are other types of “entropy” which are as quantifiable as thermal entropy, for example, the “X-entropy” which measures disorder in the distribution of any diffusing component X is defined by essentially the same equations as are used to define thermal entropy, which measures disorder in the distribution of heat as it diffuses, and X-entropy is certainly equally quantifiable. And X-entropy has little or nothing to do with thermal entropy (doesn’t even have the same units), one can increase while the other decreases in a given system. So why do people like Styer and Bunn and Sal, insist on treating all types of entropy as thermal entropy, and attempt to express the entropy associated with evolution, or the entropy of a 747, in units of Joules/degree Kelvin?

Physicists like Styer and Bunn are applying the only notion of entropy that is relevant to applications of the second law. That you can define other physical quantities and attach the label “entropy” to them is neither here nor there. Not, at least, unless you can also give a mighty good argument for why the second law still applies to your new quantity.

As I have argued before, the second law of thermodynamics does not actually play any role in creationist or ID argument. When you hear them refer to the second law, you can be sure that they are just expressing incredulity that evolution can lead to increases in complexity. Invoking the second law is strictly a way of putting a scientific gloss on an entirely vacuous argument.


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A reader sent me a link to an article by that inimatable genius of the intelligent design community, Granville Sewell. (As much as I hate to admit it, Sewell is a professor of mathematics at Texas A&M. I don't know what his professional specialty is, but if his work in that area is anything…

But frankly I am more than happy that creidiots like Sewell continue to put the " 2nd law" argument forward. It exposes them as the nitwits they are.
Sane persons only have to remember one thing: the Sun.
Any decrease of entropy on Earth (or any other object in our solar system) is more than compensated by an increase of entropy of the Sun.
It's as simple as that.

Provided you proceed from the assumption that Sewell, at least, is perfectly aware of the dishonesty of creationist arguments, his response makes sense to me.

Sewell knows – and knows that Cordova knows he knows – that the entropy argument rests (like many other ‘scientific’ cdesign proponentist arguments) on carefully and quite deliberately exploiting the exact point where there’s a counterintuitive gap between the vernacular and technical meaning of a the term. That’s why they proceed by quote-mining the first half of attempts to link the two by ‘authorities of science’.

He can’t, of course, directly state this because that would give the game away. So instead we get what’s actually quite a clever sideways move. The absurdity is no longer ‘Tornadoes don’t build 747s, do they? Hyuck!’ – and instead becomes something like ‘747s are cold when you touch ‘em, so how come them scimenatists say they got Joules and Degrees in ‘em? Hyuck!’. It’s a reframe – if you can’t attack the application of entropy to evolution any more, muddy the concept of entropy itself.

It’s possible, if you were really paranoid, to imagine that both sides are practicing the deception here. Cordova and Sewell acknowledge that the basic entropy argument has been knocked down too many times in too many places to work with all but the most underinformed rubes, and engineer a ‘controversy’ which gets us to the new frame while at the same time giving the appearance of ‘informed debate’ within the ID community.

By Matt Bright (not verified) on 11 Sep 2012 #permalink

What's funny is that spirits, souls, and other assorted supernatural beings are the things that actually break the 2nd law of thermodynamics. So if humans were fundamentally supernatural (having a sould and stuff) then we would be breaking the 2nd law of thermodynamics.

By J. Quinton (not verified) on 11 Sep 2012 #permalink

But there are other types of “entropy” which are as quantifiable as thermal entropy, for example, the “X-entropy” which measures disorder in the distribution of any diffusing component X is defined by essentially the same equations as are used to define thermal entropy

For the math to be applicable to other systems, those systems must be very closely analogous to thermodynamics. Creationists go wrong in applying the math willy-nilly, without any real consideration of whether we could expect it to be predictive. There may be other points of disanalogy, but here I"ll just mention the two I think are the most important.

Thermodynamic entropy is a (measure of the) distribution of a real, quantifiable property: energy. When creationists try and apply the concept of entropy to 'information' or 'complexity,' I have to ask what real property is being distributed. If there isn't one, then it is hard to see how the 2lot's math would be applicable to the concept.

Second, that real thing whose distribution you are interested in must diffuse like energy does, or entropy equations will not be applicable. Again, I have a difficult time seeing how information or complexity as concepts meet this condition. When I put Pride and Prejudice in physical contact with Pet Cemetary, they do not spontaneously mix to create Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

Eric --

Thanks for the interesting comment. I do feel compelled to point out, however, that the title of Stephen King's novel is actually Pet Sematery. :)

They need every argument they can get, and for Cordova to lessen their arsenal is tantamount to betrayal.

Still, another odd thing about the creationist approach to "thermodynamics" is their apparent unspoken assumption that such things as tornadoes building airplanes, broken glass flying into the air and reconstituting itself into a beer bottle, and apes evolving into humans (yes, one is not like the others) are actually in some sense bound to happen, it's just that the 2LoT is tirelessly prohibiting them. I raised this point on UD a year ago.

In some ways, it's like the problems with the cosmological and ontological arguments all over again. If the 2LoT were as broad as ID folks interpret, then it would prohibit numerous other processes which we know definitely occur. So a special exception has to be carved out for "intelligent agents" doing things, whether it is building a computer or (divinely) creating a genetic code that can result in the complex process of growth (rather like how exceptions for God must be carved out in the rules that "everything has a cause" and "you can't deduce something's reality from the fact that in order to have its attributes it would need to be real"). Further stipulations must be made as to why perpetual motion remains an impossible dream for mortal humans, if intelligent agents can in fact violate 2LoT.

The whole thing becomes semi-circular: evolution is impossible because it violates 2Lot, occasional violations of 2LoT can be performed by God, we just know that evolution didn't happen by divine means because… (I've never actualy heard the end of that sentence). Maybe their response would be "We're okay with God directing evolution, we're just arguing against pure atheism." But there remains a legitimate camp of thought, theistic evolution, which is a distinct critter from ID/creationism. And neither of those folks have been pushing for scientists to recognize the divine cause of frog metamorphosis. So what's the deal here?

If you don't know what adiabatic means, you shouldn't be talking about thermodynamics. ID morons.

The entropy associated with a diffusing component of a solution does not have different units from the entropy associated with the movement of heat. Entropy is entropy; its units are J/K.

Granville Sewell is a charlatan.

By Gerard Harbison (not verified) on 11 Sep 2012 #permalink

[blockquote]Stephen King’s novel is actually Pet Sematery[/blockquote]

Actually, it's (mis-)spelled 'Sematary', with an 'a' between the t and r.

Actually, it’s (mis-)spelled ‘Sematary’, with an ‘a’ between the t and r.

This has been an especially meta instance of Muphry's law in action.

Lenoxus hits the nail on the head. If they're going to use the 2nd Law in arguing against evolution, one would expect that their alternative explanation was consistent with the 2nd Law.

Obvious - divine intervention can reduce "entropy" in this world because it increases entropy in the heavenly realm! Now, we just need to find the appropriate "god particle" that can effect the energy transfer. Don't mention photons.

By William T (not verified) on 18 Sep 2012 #permalink