Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Signature in the Cell Part 3 - The Book Of Numbers

"I went up to Meyer at the conference and asked him, "You wrote that 'information theorists' (plural) talk about specified complexity. Who are they?" He then admitted that he knew no one but Dembski"
 - Jeffrey Shallit,

The Book of Numbers in the Old Testament starts with a census to count the able-bodied capable of defending God's chosen people. In Meyer's book, its case so dependant on numbers, we should count the mathematicians  therein who answer Meyer's rallying cry.

One name dominates.

My previous chapter in this saga was a long digression on Dembski, outlining his theological motivation for both embracing and promoting ID. I showed that he considers the bible to inerrant and superior to scientific discovery. I noted how his continued employment is contingent on professing these views. For flavour I spoke of his affirmation of a worldwide flood and questioned if his belief in a Genesis 11, Tower of Babel-based origin of the world's various languages would lead to a new field of intelligent linguistics. What I didn't make clear was how much he contributed to Signature in the Cell.

Intelligent Design is often referred to as an argument from ignorance by those who frame its argument thusly: "We do not know how life originated, therefore God Intelligent Designer." Dembski and Meyer attempt to obviate this criticism by forming the following premises:
  1. A certain type of information can only be produced through intelligence.
  2. This type of information has been defined and is both identifiable and distinguishible from other sorts.
  3. It is present in DNA.
From the above they conclude an Intelligent Designer.

With premise (1) I take no issue; this blog post is clearly the product of intelligence. (My detractors and I may quibble over quantity.) Telescopes gather information from far off nebulae and we can reasonably say that this information is not the product of intelligence.

Premise (2) is where I begin to disagree. Meyer enthuses about Complex Specified Information, Functionally Specific Information and The Explanatory Filter. These are all the product of Dembski's intelligence and if you'd like to see them dealt with in a scholarly fashion by someone with the required mathematical background I can strongly recommend my fellow Jeffrey, Jeffrey Shallit:

It's possible you are not rushing for your logarithmic tables, eager to dust off old memories of school days in an effort to follow a paper on mathematics. Do give it a shot. Shallit is an accessible and interesting writer. Perhaps you don't have time. Is there some other way we can evaluate the claims of Dembski and Meyer?

Let us assume they are correct. If so, uniquely among mathematicians, Dembski has discovered something of a holy grail. No longer will forensic investigators need to ask themselves if they are examining the victim of accident or assassin. Insurance companies can stop paying out billions to fraudulent claimants. Casinos will develop robust systems capable of distinguishing between the outcomes of random chance and intelligent cheating. The Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence (henceforth SETI) will find a new tool in their arsenal.

Let's tackle these in reverse order. Meyer speaks frequently of SETI, and I've chosen some samples:
NASA’s search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) presupposes that any specified information imbedded in electromagnetic signals coming from space would indicate an intelligent source.
-Page 344
SETI does presume that the presence of a complex and specified pattern would provide grounds for suspecting the existence of an intelligence.
-Page 383
SETI scientists do not already know whether an extraterrestrial intelligence exists. Yet they assume that the presence of a large amount of specified information ...would establish the existence of one.
-Page 542
Emphasis mine. Reading this it seems SETI and ID are brothers in arms, using the same methods with the same goals. Dembski's "specified information" term is given credence by the implication that the rocket scientists of NASA use it for one of their longest-running projects.

Unfortunately for Meyer, someone told SETI.

In a highly entertaining essay Seth Shostak of SETI opens by comparing the ID movement to drunkards playing with tuberous vegetables and goes on to explain in clear tearms the misrepresentation in Meyer's statements.

Here's a brief excerpt, do read the whole thing:
"...the signals actually sought by today's SETI searches are not complex, as the ID advocates assume. We're not looking for intricately coded messages, mathematical series, or even the aliens' version of "I Love Lucy." Our instruments are largely insensitive to the modulation--or message--that might be conveyed by an extraterrestrial broadcast. A SETI radio signal of the type we could actually find would be a persistent, narrow-band whistle. Such a simple phenomenon appears to lack just about any degree of structure"
In other words they're looking for the equivalent a single tone, something entirely different to Dembski's Complex Specified Information.

I've had the pleasure of workiing with actuaries. They're an interesting bunch, though a forty hour week performing statistical analysis on deaths, injuries and accidents does tend to send them to the pub of a Friday evening. They were kind enough to invite me along and I halfheartedly mentioned Dembski as the evening progressed. Once I'd explained the background the response was peppered with laughter and largely unprintable, but suffice it to say his methods are not known, used, nor under consideration in insurance fraud detection.

Is it fair to say it's been tested, and found wanting? Since gaining his PhD in mathematics in 1988, Dembski has published four peer reviewed papers in the field of information theory. For comparison Jeffrey Shallit (whose review of Dembski's work I mention earlier) has 256 published papers. Due to Dembski's rather meagre input we have space to look at all four:

"Conservation of Information in Search: Measuring the Cost of Success."
This paper is cited by fourteen, four of which are Dembski's, one being from the anti-ID site, the others I haven't reviewed in depth. From my amateur position its focus seems to be bashing Dawkins' weasel program.

"Evolutionary Synthesis of Nand Logic: Dissecting a Digital Organism"
An attack on the Avida simulation. Cited by 9, a third of which are Dembski's. When last I checked Avida hadn't lost funding.

"Bernoulli's Principle of Insufficient Reason and Conservation of Information in Computer Search"
Cited by three, two of which are Dembski's, one of which is written by a co-author.

"Efficient Per Query Information Extraction from a Hamming Oracle"
Cited by Dembski and one of his co-authors.

Is this the CV of a game changer in the information theory world? Can we draw any conclusions from the fact that no-one outside the ID world is using his output, despite the undeniable riches that would await them if Dembski were correct?

The most elegant explanation of science I've read comes from a quote by Richard Feynman:
In general we look for a new law by the following process. First we guess it. Then we compute the consequences of the guess to see what would be implied if this law that we guessed is right. Then we compare the result of the computation to nature, with experiment or experience, compare it directly with observation, to see if it works. If it disagrees with experiment it is wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It does not make any difference how beautiful your guess is. It does not make any difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is – if it disagrees with experiment it is wrong. That is all there is to it.
Dembski's methods are vulnerable to testing. In addition to the aforementioned fields we could have novelty tests, such as subjecting a happy face found on Mars (left) to his methods and ensuring an appropriate result is found. Should a religious or indeed celebrity figure appear on a piece of grilled bread Dembski should be the first person to attempt to debunk. And yet the only experimental results I can find of Dembski's work come from the opposition.

Life wasn't easy for Moses in the Book of Numbers. Conditions are painted as harsh, complaints frequent and a significant number doubted his message in some fairly spectacular ways. But at least Moses is said to have offered evidence. Dembski and Meyer seem to depend on our faith. I remain unconvinced.


John Considine said...

I like the review but I am putting in an official request for another one of your short stories, I quite enjoyed them!

Geoff said...

Watchman took maybe 30 hours, it's had 16 page views. My piece on porn consumption took maybe three hours and got over four hundred.

Hard to get motivated!

Still, I have one in the works. It will be some time.