Intelligent Design Mysticism and The Rape of Information Theory

Now that Stephen Meyer has published the most mystical book since the Necronomicon—his Intelligent Design tome Signature in the Cell—we’re in for another tsunami of creationists raping information theory. Creationists and IDists like Meyer have noticed that there’s information in DNA, you’re shocked I know, and they mystically intuit that only intelligent beings can create information. Therefore all living things are intelligently designed. By whom? When the Discovery Instituters want taxpayers to buy their textbooks, they’re a bit vague on who he is—“identity a secret, but it rhymes with Todd” (as Steve Mirsky says [1].)

Creationists and IDists know in their gut that only intelligence can make “information”, in the same sense that only leprechauns can make shoes, and only elves can make cookies full of hydrogenated vegetable oil…er… Elfen magic!

Let’s not confuse this info-mysticism with the real branch of mathematics called information theory. To distinguish them, mathematician Jeff Shallit calls the mystic quantity “creationist information” [2], but here I’m going to call it info shminfo—an occult, intangible, unmeasurable, undefinable, bedazzled, polka-dotted (oh why not?) something or other.

In contrast, real information (the sciencey kind) has a precise mathematical definintion and can be computed [3]. IDists like Stephen Meyer et al. lift the jargon of information theory while often contradicting its mathematical properties (when convenient).

ID proponents are equivalent to New Ager mystics who lift scientific jargon to sell a functionless product: like the New Age salesmen who say their crystals emit ‘vibrations’, and their psychic powers are due to ‘electromagnetic fields’, and that Sedona, Arizona has ‘energy vortexes’, ooga booga.

To see how ridiculous info-mysticism has gotten, here’s a video of a preacher, Peanut Butter Man, claiming that he has disproven evolution with some info shminfo and a jar of peanut butter [4].

According to the Reverend Skippy (real name Chuck Missler), evolution is disproven because peanut butter does not turn into a living organism, unless “some information [is] added to it.” Uh, has he actually read the list of ingredients for peanut butter? It’s full of preservatives to prevent anything from living in it. Considering what they put in peanut butter, we’re lucky we can eat it and remain alive.

Did you know? No creationist and no IDist has ever measured the info shminfo in any gene, or any protein, or in any genetic sequence from any genome.

Consider any gene—say, the gene for b hemoglobin in blood. A single mutation (A to T) can confer resistance to malaria, but can also give you sickle cell anemia (if you’re homozygous for it.) Creationists generally say that after this mutation happens, the info shminfo has decreased. How the hell do they know?  They can’t measure the info shminfo in normal hemoglobin; how would they know if it’s a tiny bit more or less after the mutation?  And by how much?  You can’t weasel out by saying, “Sickle cell is a disease,” since that A to T mutation helps prevent malaria, which is also a disease.

And if hypothetically the info shminfo really did decrease, why can’t a random T to A mutation do it backwards, and increase the info shminfo back to where it was before?

If you use different equations (to measure info shminfo) before and after the mutation, it’s accounting fraud. If you use no equation, you’re raping information theory. The Discovery Institute, Werner Gitt, Tom Willis and Carl Wieland et al. have no equations to measure info shminfo; but they all dishonestly imply they do, to fool lay audiences.

Even though creationists can’t measure how much info shminfo there is in anything, nevertheless they know for sure there’s less now than there was last week.  They call this mystic mood the “law of conservation of information,” which at least sounds scientific, like ‘harmonic convergence.’

Creationists insist their ‘conservation law’ is proven because scientists can’t produce a counter-example: a situation in which creationists feel that the amount of info shminfo has increased because of a natural process. Thus, creationists demand that scientists build a machine to disprove their feelings. Which are mostly nihilism and pessimism, as far as I can tell. I suggest listening to a Carpenters CD.

Meanwhile back on round Earth…real information theory is a branch of mathematics founded by Claude Shannon in 1948 [3]. It’s genuinely useful in a lot of different fields, most famously electrical engineering; but it’s also useful in bioinformatics (theoretical molecular biology.)  Shannon defined an equation for the mutual information between two properties. ‘Mutual information’ means that, when two properties (X and Y) are statistically correlated, then whatever knowledge you have about a property (X) will reduce your uncertainty about the other property, Y.

By Shannon’s definition, natural non-random processes, including natural selection, create information. The size of a footprint has information about the size of a foot. The air frozen in tiny bubbles in arctic ice has information about ancient climates. They’re correlated. They have information. Nature did it. Done.

Creationists assert that info shminfo has properties that sometimes are similar to, and other times opposite to, Shannon’s information, depending on what’s convenient for creationists at the moment. To put it politely and respectfully, creationists like Werner Gitt, Carl Wieland and Stephen Meyer dug up Shannon’s grave and skull-raped him. They just lift Shannon’s jargon so they can feed like hagfish up the ass of his authority.

Shannon’s information is always about something. What is info shminfo even about, anyway? Creationists can’t answer even the simplest questions about it.

Because of vague definitions, creationists move their goal posts when confronted with experimental [5] and theoretical evidence [6] of natural processes increasing complexity or information (objectively defined).

Consider Werner Gitt (widely respected by creationists like Answers in Genesis and CMI), who wows the nonscientist audiences he talks to by telling them his mystic intuitions are “theorems”, and by using lots of self-invented hyperpolymultisyllabificationizing [7]. This Gitt defines “information” as “meaning”, and defines “meaning” as the thing that only intelligences can create. So since DNA obviously has lots of info shminfo, it must have lots of “meaning” and thus was made by God. This proves creationist DTHT (Dirt-to-Human Transition Theory).

This Gitt admits explicitly that his info shminfo cannot be mathematically formulated, in a fascinating exchange with Jason Rosenhouse (read it, it’s great) [9]. Although Gitt cannot measure how much “meaning” is in any gene, he still asserts as a universal law that mutations of the Darwinian type can only decrease meaning. (What units would “meaning” be measured in anyway?  Meanits?)

This Gitt backs up his laws of information by saying: no scientist has ever provided a counter-example!  Sure.  Suppose I say there’s a ‘universal pizza law’ which says that, at the moment a pizza is removed from an oven, its ‘epistemology’ is a maximum, and thereafter only decreases. But I haven’t told you what ‘epistemology’ means here, and I didn’t tell you how to measure it. Anyway, my universal pizza law is proven, see, because you can’t present a counter-example where the epistemology in a pizza goes back up—can you?

Back on round Earth, Shannon made it clear that information and meaning were different. Shannon’s equations could measure information, but he was clear he could not measure meaning.

Now enter the Intelligent Design faith tank, the Discovery Institute [10]. DI theorist William Dembski described a quantity he called “complex specified information” (CSI) in books like No Free Lunch. It has been re-defined more than once since them, and nowadays is almost always called “specified complexity.”

In his DI colleague Meyer’s new book, Signature in the Cell, Meyer states without evidence that info shminfo necessarily requires intelligence to create it:

…both common experience and experimental evidence affirms intelligent design as a necessary condition (and cause) of information… [Meyer, SitC [11], p. 343. Boldface mine.]

How the hell did he arrive at that? The Oracle at the Temple of Delphi used to sniff ethylene gas from a seismic crack before uttering her prophecies…which was a more rigorous derivation than Meyer’s.

How exactly would you calculate how much info shminfo is in a real system? Does a human-built wooden dam have info shminfo, but a beaver-built wooden dam has none?

If you had an equation (they don’t), and if a system changed via a natural process, you would need to apply the same equation both before and after the change to measure the difference.

OK, now IDists will complain that in this 2005 paper [12], Bill Dembski vaguely describes how you might make an equation by which CSI could be computed—if you first turn the object is into a string of data bits, somehow or other. But no one has ever derived that equations; and no one has ever applied the suggested method to any gene or protein or anything biological. In that paper Dembski actually only computes a number for the “specified complexity” of one, very simple example (the bit string “1111111111”). He possibly showed that that particular bit string is non-random—but he could not show that even that simple string must be produced by intelligent beings. Could be made by a woodpecker too.

There’s no way of knowing if the equations he suggests (he doesn’t actually derive them) could be applied to biological systems, or if they really would distinguish random from non-random, or artificial stuff from natural stuff, because no one’s ever tried it. But the whole mystic authority of ID rests on such untested hand-waving.

In practice the DI has never used those equations to compute the CSI in any gene or any protein. They’ve never even computed the CSI to distinguish a caveman’s stone tool from a sharp rock made by geological forces—although they constantly, constantly, keep repeating that they really could do it if they wanted to!

Now that we’re done with math, let the mystic reading of goat entrails begin! Stephen Meyer, it’s time to don your feathered headdress!

In Meyer’s book Signature in the Cell, he claims to have “experimental evidence” that info shminfo always comes from intelligence. And the goat entrails are speaking to him…yes…yesss… My God!  DNA has info shminfo too! This changes everything!

With just as much authority, my “experimental evidence” taking peyote in the desert told me that the Turtle Totem was my Spirit Guide.

Here’s the whole dishonest strategy by which Meyer et al. concoct their “experimental evidence.” First, note that CSI used to be an “information.” Later it was called a “complexity.” They changed it. Anyway, this year it’s a complexity.

Now the DI says some complexity is “specified”, and some is “not specified”, although exactly what the term “specified” means is… unspecified.  If you really read their stuff, you find that both their “specification” and their “complexity” are defined in multiple ways, which allows IDists to cheat by moving their goal posts after Darwin’s football has flown through.

But let’s stick with “specification” for the moment, which by itself is enough to turn “specified complexity” into an occult quantity to be mystically divined. The DI intuits the CSI in objects from only two categories:

  1. Stuff that’s obviously artificial, non-random created by humans (e.g. Mount Rushmore, Mona Lisa). The goat entrails say…It’s specified!
  2. The output of simple natural, totally random processes (e.g. flipping a coin, rolling dice).  It may be complex, but…the goat entrails say…it’s never specified!

Thus, Meyer divines that no natural process makes anything that is both “complex” and “specified.”

Now a scientist or sensible person would object that they neglected the all-important third category: non-random natural processes (like crystallization, magnetization, formation of stalactites, convection cells etc.) that produce highly ordered, low-probability objects. These processes do make objects that are “complex” by the DI’s own definition of “complex.”

(Note the DI’s definition is not the standard definition of complexity—by “complex” they mean low probability of arrangement of parts, if they were thrown together totally randomly.)

Since non-random natural processes like crystallization, magnetization, etc. make “complex” things (by the DI’s own definition), then in principle maybe evolution could also make “complex” things, like, say, the proteins in blood. (After all, evolution involves mutations that are random, and natural selection that is non-random.)

But category three is verboten! For natural non-random processes, the oracles of Intelligent Design put on the Urim and Thummim and perform arcane rituals like the French guy in Raiders of the Lost Ark. They thus divine that all such objects (crystals, snowflakes, etc.) are “not specified,” ooga booga.

In short, they cheat. To see an explicit example of Discovery Institute cheating, in this great thread [13] at the ISCID (staffed by the fellows of the DI), a poster called Gedanken systematically destroys the foundations of “specified complexity.” When the stone heads on Easter Island are claimed to have specified complexity, our friend “Gedanken” asks: what exactly is the “specification” for stone faces?

DI creationist Paul Nelson replies “The specification is the anatomical form of Homo sapiens.” Nelson follows this with 30 pages of equations describing the anatomical form of Homo sapiens. Nah I’m kidding, he just pulled it out his ass.

But wait: “Gedanken” cites counter-examples of natural rocks that look like human faces, like New Hamphire’s Old Man of the Mountain, the face on Mars, etc. Does this show CSI from natural processes?

No, Nelson revs up his goal posts: “…the human-like features of the pattern [Old Man of the Mountain] disappear at nearly all angles other than the one shown in the photograph above.”  The IDists invoke mystic authority to move their goal posts and exclude test cases that contradict their “laws of information.”  (Of course, plenty of real anamorphic artworks are artistically-designed to be recognizable only when viewed from a certain angle, like this cool pavement art, but that’s another story.)

What research did ID proponents do to arrive at these standards? The same research methods as the high priest of Nuku Hiva, so well described by Herman Melville in Typee. The priest, Kolory, of this gorgeous island must have been the Discovery Institute’s first Research Fellow. Pioneering the cutting-edge ID research techniques, this priest

…very often carried about with him what seemed to me the half of a broken war-club. It was swathed round with ragged bits of white tappa, and the upper part, which was intended to represent a human head, was embellished with a strip of scarlet cloth…In fact, this funny little image was the ‘crack’ god of the island…its name was Moa Artua… [W]ith the chiefs disposed in a circle around him, [Kolory] commences his ceremony.

In the first place he gives Moa Artua an affectionate hug…and, finally, whispers something in his ear; the rest of the company listening eagerly for a reply. But the baby-god is deaf or dumb–perhaps both, for never a word does he utter…and Kolory, seemingly losing his temper, fetches him a box over the head…and laying him in a state of nudity in a little trough, covers him from sight. At this proceeding all present loudly applaud and signify their approval by uttering the adjective ‘motarkee with violent emphasis…After a few moments Kolory brings forth his doll again, and…he once more speaks to it aloud.

The whole company hereupon show the greatest interest; while the priest holding Moa Artua to his ear interprets to them what he pretends the god is confidentially communicating to him. Some items of intelligence appear to tickle all present amazinglyWhether the priest honestly interpreted what he believed the divinity said to him, or whether he was not all the while guilty of a vile humbug, I shall not presume to decide. [14]

I shall. The Discovery Institute is guilty of a vile humbug. The arrogance with which the Kolorys of Intelligent Design claim their mystic authority, without doing any calculations, is breathtaking. It’s vividly on display in Meyer’s recent book:

Experience shows that large amounts of specified complexity or information (especially codes and languages) invariably originate from an intelligent source — from a mind or personal agent. [SitC, p. 343 [11]. Boldface mine.]

Invariably, Meyer?  Yes, because ID advocates invariably cheat; and they invariably move their goal posts after Darwin’s football flies through. They are invariably biased, and invariably exclude natural processes which would increase info shminfo—that is, which would if they would just give us one equation and stick to it!

Notice above that Meyer now adds the caveat that only intelligence can create “large amounts” of info shminfo.  No definition of “large amounts” here. Sigh. OK, if natural processes can create small amounts of info shminfo, then how much could they create in, let’s say, 5 million organisms evolving for 500 million years?

Also, Meyer now says that only an intelligent mind can make “specified complexity or information.”  Oh, which is it this time?  Is he now also including “unspecified” information along with the specified kind?

The Discovery Institute now has so many vaguely defined rules that they’re not just moving their goals posts—they’re moving the end zone, the referees, the Astroturf, the field markings, and the chick who sings the National Anthem.

Mathematician Jeff Shallit showed that Meyer’s mystical info shminfo does not have the properties of any real mathematical quantity [2].

In Meyer’s infamous 2004 paper published in the PBSW [15], he speaks of how the CSI of animal species vastly increased during the so-called “Cambrian explosion”, 540 million years ago.  He gives us no CSI calculations for any fossils from the Cambrian era, nor for any fossils from before the Cambrian. (By the way, Dembski defined CSI as something that an object either has or it doesn’t.  Yes or no.  First Meyer cites Dembski’s authority on CSI…and then Meyer contradicts Dembski and describes CSI as something he knows some organisms have more of than others.)

Meyer writes,..without functional criteria to guide a search through the space of possible sequences, random variation is probabilistically doomed.”

“Probabilistically doomed”? Did he calculate that? Nah, he got it the same way Professor Trelawney did when she told Harry Potter he too was “doomed”: by reading tea leaves.

All claimed “laws of conservation of information” rely on circular logic, although creationists bury the circularity in different ways. Werner Gitt buries the circularity in his assumption that all information has “meaning” and that only intelligence can make “meaning.”

The DI buries their circular logic by classifying all results of natural processes as “unspecified.” (Their probability calculation is bull too, but that’s another story.)

Next, IDists are forced to divide their info shminfo into different mystical sub-types. In the example I cited above—the human-built wooden dam vs. the beaver dam—IDists would say ‘the human-built dam has info shminfo that was recently created by human intelligence. But the beaver-built dam has old info shminfo that was smuggled into the beavers when God created beavers.’ I’m serious. That is really what IDists say: some info shminfo is smuggled in somehow, though they can’t distinguish the old smuggled kind from the new non-smuggled kind (“active info shminfo”).

But, on this basis, when scientists observe information appearing in evolutionary processes, Dembski says the scientists “smuggled” it in, so Dembski accuses them of research fraud [16,17]. This is no different from Cotton Mather, the first American Intelligent Design proponent and dogged opponent of “materialism”, who supported the admission of spectral evidence into witch trials.

Besides the “smuggled” and “active” info shminfo, IDists also believe in “apparent info shminfo” and “actual info shminfo.”

You see, a problem for ID is that there are a lot of computer programs that simulate Darwinian mutation and natural selection, in order to solve incredibly hard problems that no human engineer can solve. They produce the Darwinian design of even “irreducibly complex” systems that no engineer could have anticipated [19].

Darwin is kicking ID’s ass, so Dembski simply says that all Darwinian-evolved designs have “apparent info shminfo”, whereas human-made designs have “actual info shminfo.”  Sure, they may look exactly the same, but they’re missing an intangible and undetectable something!  And, Dembski also believes that if you take his photograph, you can steal his soul!

Here, Dembski is redefining “complexity” when convenient for him. He actually defines the designs produced by evolutionary algorithms, no matter how complicated they are, as having zero complexity by definition! [20] See Elsberry’s demolition of Dembski’s moving goal posts [21].

OK, now the ‘Motarkee!’ crowd will want to know: how does the information get into the genome?  Randomly generated mutations are non-randomly recorded—only advantageous changes get duplicated in the next generation, while deleterious changes are selected out and don’t get duplicated.

Creationists object to this by saying “it’s impossible for a randomly generated mutation to produce information! Randomness is not information!”  Doesn’t matter if the new gene sequence started out as random or not. The proportion of occurrence of that change is nonrandom, because natural selection non-randomly duplicates the advantageous changes.

I’ll put this in terms the right wing can understand: natural selection only records good news and forgets bad news—like the Fox News Channel when a Republican is president. Even if good news occurs at random intervals, the proportion of it that gets broadcast is non-randomly distributed.

By Shannon’s definition, statistical correlation is mutual information. Natural selection produces an ever-increasing correlation between the proportion of a mutant allele in the population, and how advantageous that mutation is. For more, you can read Tom Schneider’s 2000 paper about the Evolution of Biological Information [6].

Maybe you can claim natural selection cannot produce enough information to make X amount of complexity in organisms in Y amount of time.  OK, fine. Then do a calculation with X and Y in it, and we can argue about your calculation. But this can’t even start until you first pick one equation and stick to it!

If creationists would just pick one damn equation for info shminfo and stick to it, scientists could always find a counter-example that increases that stuff.

“Motarkee! Motarkee!”

References

1. The Trials of Life. By Steve Mirsky. Scientific American, December 2005. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=the-trials-of-life.

2. Stephen Meyer’s Bogus Information Theory by Jeffrey Shallit. http://recursed.blogspot.com/2009/10/stephen-meyers-bogus-information-theory.html.

3. Shannon, C.E. (1948), “A Mathematical Theory of Communication”, Bell System Technical Journal, 27, pp. 379–423 & 623–656, July & October, 1948. http://cm.bell-labs.com/cm/ms/what/shannonday/shannon1948.pdf.

4. YouTube: In Defense of the Peanut Butter Man. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vH5mBtc74lo.

5. TalkOrigins: Index to Creationist Claims CB102 http://www.talkorigins.org/indexcc/CB/CB102.html.

6. Schneider, T. D., 2000. Evolution of biological information. Nucleic Acids Research 28(14): 2794-2799. http://www-lecb.ncifcrf.gov/~toms/paper/ev/.

7. Information, science and biology. by Werner Gitt. First published: TJ (now Journal of Creation) 10(2):181–187. August 1996. http://www.answersingenesis.org/tj/v10/i2/information.asp.

8. Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Episode 21: The Git Sketch. Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KsoH5I88WDA. Transcript: http://www.ibras.dk/montypython/episode21.htm#7

9. Panda’s Thumb: Report on the 2005 Creation Mega Conference, Part Five. By Jason Rosenhouse. http://pandasthumb.org/archives/2005/07/report-on-the-2-4.html.

10. The Wedge Document, Discovery Institute Center for Renewal of Science and Culture, 1998. http://www.antievolution.org/features/wedge.pdf.

11. Stephen Meyer, Signature in the Cell, 2009. Harper One.

12. Specification: The Pattern That Signifies Intelligence. By William A. Dembski. 2005, version 1.22. http://www.designinference.com/documents/2005.06.Specification.pdf.

13. ISCID, http://www.iscid.org/boards/ubb-get_topic-f-6-t-000411-p-2.html.

14. Herman Melville, Typee, 1846, Ch. 24.

15. Stephen C. Meyer. Intelligent Design: The Origin of Biological Information and the Higher Taxonomic Categories. Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington. May 18, 2007. http://www.discovery.org/a/2177.

16. Thomas D. Schneider, 2001 June 6. Rebuttal to William A. Dembski’s Posting and to His Book “No Free Lunch”. http://www.ccrnp.ncifcrf.gov/~toms/paper/ev/dembski/.

17. Thomas D. Schneider, 2001 June 7. Effect of Ties on the Evolution of Information by the Ev program http://www.ccrnp.ncifcrf.gov/~toms/paper/ev/dembski/claimtest.html.

18. Panda’s Thumb: Unacknowledged Errors in “Unacknowledged Costs.” By Wesley R. Elsberry. October 9, 2007. http://pandasthumb.org/archives/2007/10/unacknowledged.html.

19. TalkOrigins Archive: Genetic Algorithms and Evolutionary Computation. By Adam Marczyk. 2004. http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/genalg/genalg.html.

20. Why Evolutionary Algorithms Cannot Generate Specified Complexity. By William Dembski. Appeared as Metaviews 152 (www.meta-list.org). 1999/11/1. http://www.discovery.org/a/10.

21. TalkReason: What does “Intelligent Agency by Proxy” Do for the Design Inference? By Wesley R. Elsberry. Posted May 6, 2002. http://www.talkreason.org/PrinterFriendly.cfm?article=/articles/wre_id_proxy.cfm.

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One Response to Intelligent Design Mysticism and The Rape of Information Theory

  1. Pingback: Abiogenesis and Information « Eye on the ICR

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