The Discovery Institute wants my money

I got a begging email from our good friends at the Center for Science & Culture. They're going to have to work a lot harder to persuade me.

Dear PZ:

Wait. Dear PZ? I'm having a tough time imagining any of those bozos addressing me as dear. But let us continue.

Intelligent design is a common sense idea. Research has shown that children intuitively recognize design in the world around them. You and I make design inferences every day. It has taken a long time for the scientific community to catch up with the kids. But that day is coming.

Intuitive and "common sense" assumptions are often wrong. You might enjoy these misconceptions children have about physics, for instance. I look forward to their new slogan: Intelligent Design: so simple, only a child would believe it. Except that it's insulting to children.

The rest of the letter is all about the crap science they've been dumping on the public this year, and threatening to publish more.

For over 19 years, the Research & Scholarship Initiative of Discovery Institute's Center for Science & Culture (CSC) has worked to build the scientific case for design and to winsomely communicate their research and scholarship to a broad audience.

Heh. This is the first time I've every seen the adverb "winsomely" applied to what the creationists do. I had to go to the Evolution News website to see an example of their winsome articles. Here's one: Rubik's Cube Is a Hand-Sized Illustration of Intelligent Design.

For those interested in explaining ID to people without a lot of memory work, the Rubik's Cube can be a useful instructional aid. You don't have to master the art of solving it. Save your sanity; just buy two cubes, and don't touch the solved one. Lock it into a plastic case if you have to, so that you won't have to try all 43 quintillion combinations in front of your audience. Or, rent a kid who can fix it in a few seconds.

Explain that the cube is a search problem. Take the scrambled one, and show how you want to get from that one to the solved one. You need a search algorithm. Which approach is more likely to find the solution -- intelligent causes or unguided causes? The answer is obvious, but go ahead; rub it in. A robot randomly moving the colors around could conceivably hit on the solution by chance in short order with sheer dumb luck (1 chance in 43 x 1018), but even if it did, it would most likely keep rotating the colors right back out of order again, not caring a dime. It would take an intelligent agent to recognize the solution and stop the robot when it gets the solution by chance.

More likely, it would take a long, long time. Trying all 43 x 1018 combinations at 1 per second would take 1.3 trillion years. The robot would have a 50-50 chance of getting the solution in half that time, but it would already vastly exceed the time available (about forty times the age of the universe). If a secular materialist counters that there could be trillions of robots with trillions of cubes working simultaneously throughout the cosmos, ask what the chance is of getting any two winners on the same planet at the same place and time. The one concession blocks the other. And what in the materialist's unguided universe is going to stop any robot when it succeeds? The vast majority will never succeed during the age of the universe.

Now rub it in. It would vastly exceed the age of the known universe for a robot to solve the cube by sheer dumb luck. How fast can an intelligent cause solve it? 4.904 seconds. That's the power of intelligent causes over unguided causes.

Now really, really rub it in. The Rubik's cube is simple compared to a protein. Imagine solving a cube with 20 colors and 100 sides. Then imagine solving hundreds of different such cubes, each with its own solution, simultaneously in the same place at the same time. If the audience doesn't run outside screaming, you didn't speak slowly enough.

Oh, man. So much wrong.

One problem with ID's argument is that they are committed to the fallacy of a specified target for an evolutionary search. So the "goal" of evolution is to produce a human being, and given the 3+ billion years of chance and variation, and the multitude of different forms produced, I'll agree: the likelihood of our specific form arising from a sea of single-celled organisms is extremely unlikely. But evolution doesn't care; it doesn't have a goal; it spawns endless different forms, so we get elephants and algae at the same time that we get, in one brief and fleeting moment of geological time, anthropoids.

One problem with their Rubik's Cube example is that it does have a known goal: you're supposed to get each side to a different solid color. Their single enshrined cube set to a single specific solution is a good example of the poverty of Intelligent Design creationism.

If I were to use Rubik's Cube as a demonstration of how evolution works, I'd have to do something very different. We have about 20,000 genes, so I'd have to by 20,000 Rubik's Cubes (not on a professor's salary), and I'd set each one to a different arrangement. Much of it would be chance, but for some, I'd make a desultory effort. Can I get this one to display mostly green squares on one side? On this one I want three adjacent squares to be red. Another one has alternating yellow squares on one face. You get the idea -- I want diversity, and I don't have to work as hard or as narrowly to get it. I'd also just stroll through the house, tripping over these stupid Rubik's Cubes everywhere, and occasionally twisting one.

That's closer to evolution than the DI's vision.

They're always making this mistake of assuming the only correct solution is one pre-specified result. I really want to play poker with them: I'd tell them first that the goal of the game is get a Royal Flush, and they'd fold at every hand and I'd clean up with every feeble deal.

One other problem with their analogy is that they're comparing the cube to the wrong thing. The more natural comparison is not to evolution, but to protein folding. Here's this chain of amino acids, and you have to twist it into a specific conformation that will function…why, the numbers say this is nearly impossible! And math doesn't lie!

Here's a 1993 paper by Fraenkel, Complexity of Protein Folding, that says this.

It is believed that the native folded three-dimensional conformation of a protein is its lowest free energy state, or one of its lowest. It is shown here that both a two- and three-dimensional mathematical model describing the folding process as a free energy minimization problem is NP-hard. This means that the problem belongs to a large set of computational problems, assumed to be very hard ("conditionally intractable"). Some of the possible ramifications of this result are speculated upon.

All the mathematicians and computer scientists out there will recognize that word, NP-hard. This represents a computationally very difficult problem that isn't easily solved (a Rubik's Cube is not NP-hard, I don't think--there are relatively simple algorithms that can solve it, although getting an optimal, minimum-number-of-moves solution might be harder -- I haven't been following the math.) Fraenkel explains the problem in words that will bring joy to the heart of every IDiot, as long as they don't read the rest.

Each amino acid in a protein can adopt, on average, eight different conformations (Privalov, 1979). A relatively small protein, consisting of 100 amino acids, can thus potentially assume 8100 conformations.

Whoa -- 8100 conformations is a much bigger number than 43 x 1018 combinations of the Rubik's Cube that so impressed the Discovery Institute. I guess we're done here. It's impossible for any of my proteins to fold into a functional shape before the heat death of the universe, therefore there must be trillions of invisible tiny angels flitting about winsomely in my body, lovingly crafting DNA Polymerase II for me, cunningly assembling actin monomers into fibers, shuttling electrons about in my mitochondria with focused attention to every detail. I eagerly await the moment when the Discovery Institute lifts those 2 sentences from Fraenkel in their promotional literature.

I assume they'll conveniently ignore the existence of the next two sentences.

Yet nature attains the native conformation in about 1 sec. (Note that the claim that nature assumes the global minimum free energy conformation in 1 sec is not equivalent to saying that it explores all the 8100 potential conformations in 1 sec!)

So protein folding is a much more difficult problem than solving a Rubik's cube. The DI is dazzled by a human solving the cube in under 5 seconds, and thinks this demonstrates the superiority of intelligence over other natural causes. Yet the much more difficult problem is solved by the cell in under a second.

Point to physics, chemistry, and biology. Magic intelligence loses again.

Hey, do you think the writers at the Center for Science & Culture have a joke dictionary that defines "winsomely" as "stupidly"? That would make sense.

More like this

Einstein says somewhere, "Commonsense is that collection of prejudices that one aquires up to age 18."

Having studied these folks for decades, I find the appeal to common sense to be utterly unforgiveable. Modern science violates all common sense notions ,QUOTE "Science today is the study of the very large, the very snall, the very fast and the very slow."

By Don Weinshank (not verified) on 04 Dec 2015 #permalink

ID creationists assume when a rock rolls down a hill it is trying to end up at a very specific spot at the bottom of the hill. They are struck dumb that out of the millions of places the rock could end up, it ended up where it did. They hire morons to calculate the mathematical "impossibility" of the rocks "guided" journey. And this is the most rational part of ID creationism.

Are you sure the list misconceptions children have about physics is limited to children. I believe a very large number of adults have the same misconceptions, or I have lived in Texas to long.

@ Don Weinshank

we need to be a bit careful with the use of the term "common sense" here, Don. If we equate it with intuition the, indeed, this is very often in conflict with science.

On the other hand, if we interpret it literally as "shared sensory input", as in my first book "Unusual Perspectives: An Escape From Tunnel Vision" (currently a free download from the "Unusual Perspectives" website) then it actually IDENTIFIES with science.

The notions of the ID nitwits, however, are typically so vague that the distinction is to them unclear, anyway :>)

By Peter G Kinnon (not verified) on 04 Dec 2015 #permalink

There are essential fallacies associated with the concept of ID that unfortunately even most atheists do not appreciate:
The following extract from my latest book "The Intricacy Generator: Pushing Chemistry and Geometry Uphill" concisely addresses these:
"If there was a prize for the word most responsible for the woolly thinking found in discussions such as this it is "intelligent". Along with its equally ill-defined, introspective and often emotive derivatives it is guaranteed to muddy the clearest of intellectual waters.

An attempt at its assassination and replacement with the far better term, "imagination" will occur in chapter 27

The seemingly far less innocuous word "design", too, has a serious problem. Particularly when used as a verb or in the context of a "designer".

It is beyond question that this particular concept is useful in our everyday lives. But if we look more carefully, and from a wider perspective, we find no real evidence for underlying phenomena that correspond to design or designers.

The many systems and artefacts that we humans generate are embodiments of ideas. The artefact to the idea is roughly as the phenotype is to the gene.

“Roughly” because there is no definable unit idea. Rather, as we will find in chapter 27, the neural metaphors that represent the external world are idea complexes of ill defined magnitude.
Furthermore, for the reasons given in chapter 11, the phenotype is by no means fully specified by the gene.

Moreover, no inventions are "drawn out of thin air" as some would have us believe. Rather, they arise from cumulative associations and recombinations of idea complexes. Augmented, of course, by new data gleaned by our senses from the environment. Observations!

So, when we get down to the nitty-gritty, all that remains of the "designer" is a place-holder for evolutionary processes.

The juxtaposition of these two words, one so vague as to be almost meaningless and the other to describe a non-existent phenomenon, is most inopportune.

And the proponents of "Intelligent Design" who have only one apparent real world straw at which to clutch, find it crumbling to nothing at their touch.

Or, perhaps, even more to their distaste, find it to be yet another facet of the very evolutionary process which they despise. Chapter 17 will further demolish "designers”."

All this, of course, goes against the intuitions which are part of our cultural and genetic legacy. But if thought through objectively will be seen to be inescapable truths.

By Peter G Kinnon (not verified) on 04 Dec 2015 #permalink

This ID nonsense about teleology in biology reminds me of Feynman's joke about being amazed at seeing license plate arw 357 on the way to his lecture. The difference is Feynman was being facetious, yet I can't help but suspect that the IDiots are too; it seems like some sort of bizarre inside joke gone horribly wrong. How I wish they really were just being sarcastic!

By blacklodgebob (not verified) on 10 Dec 2015 #permalink