Category Archives: Intelligent Design

Second Law Silliness from Sewell

So, via Panda’s Thumb, I hear that Granville Sewell is up to his old hijinks. Sewell is a classic creationist crackpot, who’s known for two things.

First, he’s known for chronically recycling the old “second law of thermodynamics” garbage. And second, he’s known for building arguments based on “thought experiments” – where instead of doing experiments, he just makes up the experiments and the results.

The second-law crankery is really annoying. It’s one of the oldest creationist pseudo-scientific schticks around, and it’s such a terrible argument. It’s also a sort-of pet peeve of mine, because I hate the way that people generally respond to it. It’s not that the common response is wrong – but rather that the common responses focus on one error, while neglecting to point out that there are many deeper issues with it.

In case you’ve been hiding under a rock, the creationist argument is basically:

  1. The second law of thermodynamics says that disorder always increases.
  2. Evolution produces highly-ordered complexity via a natural process.
  3. Therefore, evolution must be impossible, because you can’t create order.

The first problem with this argument is very simple. The second law of thermodynamics does not say that disorder always increases. It’s a classic example of my old maxim: the worst math is no math. The second law of thermodynamics doesn’t say anything as fuzzy as “you can’t create order”. It’s a precise, mathematical statement. The second law of thermodynamics says that in a closed system:

 Delta S geq int frac{delta Q}{T}


  1. S is the entropy in a system,
  2. Q is the amount of heat transferred in an interaction, and
  3. T is the temperature of the system.

Translated into english, that basically says that in any interaction that involves the
transfer of heat, the entropy of the system cannot possible be reduced. Other ways of saying it include “There is no possible process whose sole result is the transfer of heat from a cooler body to a warmer one”; or “No process is possible in which the sole result is the absorption of heat from a reservoir and its complete conversion into work.”

Note well – there is no mention of “chaos” or “disorder” in these statements: The second law is a statement about the way that energy can be used. It basically says that when
you try to use energy, some of that energy is inevitably lost in the process of using it.

Talking about “chaos”, “order”, “disorder” – those are all metaphors. Entropy is a difficult concept. It doesn’t really have a particularly good intuitive meaning. It means something like “energy lost into forms that can’t be used to do work” – but that’s still a poor attempt to capture it in metaphor. The reason that people use order and disorder comes from a way of thinking about energy: if I can extract energy from burning gasoline to spin the wheels of my car, the process of spinning my wheels is very organized – it’s something that I can see as a structured application of energy – or, stretching the metaphor a bit, the energy that spins the wheels in structured. On the other hand, the “waste” from burning the gas – the heating of the engine parts, the energy caught in the warmth of the exhaust – that’s just random and useless. It’s “chaotic”.

So when a creationist says that the second law of thermodynamics says you can’t create order, they’re full of shit. The second law doesn’t say that – not in any shape or form. You don’t need to get into the whole “open system/closed system” stuff to dispute it; it simply doesn’t say what they claim it says.

But let’s not stop there. Even if you accept that the mathematical statement of the second law really did say that chaos always increases, that still has nothing to do with evolution. Look back at the equation. What it says is that in a closed system, in any interaction, the total entropy must increase. Even if you accept that entropy means chaos, all that it says is that in any interaction, the total entropy must increase.

It doesn’t say that you can’t create order. It says that the cumulative end result of any interaction must increase entropy. Want to build a house? Of course you can do it without violating the second law. But to build that house, you need to cut down trees, dig holes, lay foundations, cut wood, pour concrete, put things together. All of those things use a lot of energy. And in each minute interaction, you’re expending energy in ways that increase entropy. If the creationist interpretation of the second law were true, you couldn’t build a house, because building a house involves creating something structured – creating order.

Similarly, if you look at a living cell, it does a whole lot of highly ordered, highly structured things. In order to do those things, it uses energy. And in the process of using that energy, it creates entropy. In terms of order and chaos, the cell uses energy to create order, but in the process of doing so it creates wastes – waste heat, and waste chemicals. It converts high-energy structured molecules into lower-energy molecules, converting things with energetic structure to things without. Look at all of the waste that’s produced by a living cell, and you’ll find that it does produce a net increase in entropy. Once again, if the creationists were right, then you wouldn’t need to worry about whether evolution was possible under thermodynamics – because life wouldn’t be possible.

In fact, if the creationists were right, the existence of planets, stars, and galaxies wouldn’t be possible – because a galaxy full of stars with planets is far less chaotic than loose cloud of hydrogen.

Once again, we don’t even need to consider the whole closed system/open system distinction, because even if we treat earth as a closed system, their arguments are wrong. Life doesn’t really defy the laws of thermodynamics – it produces entropy exactly as it should.

But the creationist second-law argument is even worse than that.

The second-law argument is that the fact that DNA “encodes information”, and that the amount of information “encoded” in DNA increases as a result of the evolutionary process means that evolution violates the second law.

This absolutely doesn’t require bringing in any open/closed system discussions. Doing that is just a distraction which allows the creationist to sneak their real argument underneath.

The real point is: DNA is a highly structured molecule. No disagreement there. But so what? In the life of an organism, there are virtually un-countable numbers of energetic interactions, all of which result in a net increase in the amount of entropy. Why on earth would adding a bunch of links to a DNA chain completely outweigh those? In fact, changing the DNA of an organism is just another entropy increasing event. The chemical processes in the cell that create DNA strands consume energy, and use that energy to produce molecules like DNA, producing entropy along the way, just like pretty much every other chemical process in the universe.

The creationist argument relies on a bunch of sloppy handwaves: “entropy” is disorder; “you can’t create order”, “DNA is ordered”. In fact, evolution has no problem with respect to entropy: one way of viewing evolution is that it’s a process of creating ever more effective entropy-generators.

Now we can get to Sewell and his arguments, and you can see how perfectly they match what I’ve been talking about.

Imagine a high school science teacher renting a video showing a tornado sweeping through a town, turning houses and cars into rubble. When she attempts to show it to her students, she accidentally runs the video backward. As Ford predicts, the students laugh and say, the video is going backwards! The teacher doesn’t want to admit her mistake, so she says: “No, the video is not really going backward. It only looks like it is because it appears that the second law is being violated. And of course entropy is decreasing in this video, but tornados derive their power from the sun, and the increase in entropy on the sun is far greater than the decrease seen on this video, so there is no conflict with the second law.” “In fact,” the teacher continues, “meteorologists can explain everything that is happening in this video,” and she proceeds to give some long, detailed, hastily improvised scientific theories on how tornados, under the right conditions, really can construct houses and cars. At the end of the explanation, one student says, “I don’t want to argue with scientists, but wouldn’t it be a lot easier to explain if you ran the video the other way?”

Now imagine a professor describing the final project for students in his evolutionary biology class. “Here are two pictures,” he says.

“One is a drawing of what the Earth must have looked like soon after it formed. The other is a picture of New York City today, with tall buildings full of intelligent humans, computers, TV sets and telephones, with libraries full of science texts and novels, and jet airplanes flying overhead. Your assignment is to explain how we got from picture one to picture two, and why this did not violate the second law of thermodynamics. You should explain that 3 or 4 billion years ago a collection of atoms formed by pure chance that was able to duplicate itself, and these complex collections of atoms were able to pass their complex structures on to their descendants generation after generation, even correcting errors. Explain how, over a very long time, the accumulation of genetic accidents resulted in greater and greater information content in the DNA of these more and more complicated collections of atoms, and how eventually something called “intelligence” allowed some of these collections of atoms to design buildings and computers and TV sets, and write encyclopedias and science texts. But be sure to point out that while none of this would have been possible in an isolated system, the Earth is an open system, and entropy can decrease in an open system as long as the decreases are compensated by increases outside the system. Energy from the sun is what made all of this possible, and while the origin and evolution of life may have resulted in some small decrease in entropy here, the increase in entropy on the sun easily compensates this tiny decrease. The sun should play a central role in your essay.”

When one student turns in his essay some days later, he has written,

“A few years after picture one was taken, the sun exploded into a supernova, all humans and other animals died, their bodies decayed, and their cells decomposed into simple organic and inorganic compounds. Most of the buildings collapsed immediately into rubble, those that didn’t, crumbled eventually. Most of the computers and TV sets inside were smashed into scrap metal, even those that weren’t, gradually turned into piles of rust, most of the books in the libraries burned up, the rest rotted over time, and you can see see the result in picture two.”

The professor says, “You have switched the pictures!” “I know,” says the student. “But it was so much easier to explain that way.”

Evolution is a movie running backward, that is what makes it so different from other phenomena in our universe, and why it demands a very different sort of explanation.

This is a perfect example of both of Sewell’s usual techniques.

First, the essential argument here is rubbish. It’s the usual “second-law means that you can’t create order”, even though that’s not what it says, followed by a rather shallow and pointless response to the open/closed system stuff.

And the second part is what makes Sewell Sewell. He can’t actually make his own arguments. No, that’s much too hard. So he creates fake people, and plays out a story using his fake people and having them make fake arguments, and then uses the people in his story to illustrate his argument. It’s a technique that I haven’t seen used so consistency since I read Ayn Rand in high school.

Lucky Me: the Return of John Davison to GM/BM

Being the incredibly lucky guy that I am, I somehow managed to attract the attention of John Davison. If you don’t know John, well.. you’re lucky.

He’s a rather infamous fellow. He’s got a rather peculiar hypothesis about evolution. Basically, he claims that evolution did occur, but it was front-loaded – the path that it took was dictated ahead of time by evolution encoded into the primitive genome.

To make matters worse, his approach to debate is, generally, to shout, call people names, make vague threats, and generally piss everyone off, regardless of whether or not they agree with him. He was the first person that I ever banned back at ScienceBlogs.

And to make it even worse, the guy doesn’t understand how blogs actually work. He started one blog, made one post, and then continued to post on the blog simply by adding comments to that post. Then he threw a tantrum, deleted it, started a new one, and did exactly the same thing. It appears that his current blog (which has the incredibly pompous name “The Proceedings of the Natural History Society of South Burlington Vermont”) actually has several posts on in – the most recent one being somewhat more than two and a half years old. But he’s still posting comments on it. Hundreds and hundreds of comments, nearly all by him. It appears that he progressed from thinking that a blog post was an entire blog (and thus adding new “posts” as comments on the only existing post on the blog), to thinking that a blog post is a category (and thus adding new posts on comments on the five different posts on his blog).

He’s showed up in the comments here. Naturally, being John, he’s commenting in the wrong place. And, of course, being John, he’s throwing tantrums about how nobody is paying attention to him.

The poor guy is clearly lonely and desperate for attention.

So. His comments are here, here, and here.

Please respond to them (if you must) in the comments on this post, so that it’s easy to keep track of. I warned John privately that I’m not going to tolerate him insulting other commenters; similarly, I’d ask that anyone who responds to him do so on the content of his posts, and refrain from just throwing insults at him.

Frankly, I doubt that he’s capable of actually engaging in a civil discussion. I’d put money on it taking less than an hour from the time this post goes up until he starts insulting people. But hey, why not give him the chance to try?

So, to repeat the warning: as always, my comment policy is:

  • you’re welcome to insult me: after all, I insult people in my posts; it’s only fair that they be allowed to insult me back
  • you are not allowed to insult other commenters. You can disagree as strongly as you want – but personal insults will not be tolerated.

If you break that simple rule, you get one warning, and then you get banned. That goes for John, and that goes for anyone else commenting.

Disco Strikes Out Again: Casey Luskin, Kitzmiller, and New Information

For a lot of people, I seem to have become the go-to blogger for
information theory stuff. I really don’t deserve it: Jeff Shallit at
Recursivity knows a whole lot more than I do. But I do my best.

Anyway, several people pointed out that over at the Disco Institute,
resident Legal Eagle Casey Luskin has started posting an eight-part
series on how the Kitzmiller case (the legal case concerning the teaching of
intelligent design in Dover PA) was decided wrong. In Kitzmiller, the
intelligent design folks didn’t just lose; they utterly humiliated themselves.
But Casey has taken it on himself to demonstrate why, not only did they
not make themselves look like a bunch of dumb-asses, but they
in fact should have won, had the judge not been horribly biased against them.

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ID Garbage: CSI as Non-Computability

An alert reader pointed me at a recent post over at Uncommon Descent by a guy who calls
himself “niwrad”, which argues (among other things) that life is
non-computable. In fact, it basically tries to use computability
as the basis of Yet Another Sloppy ID Argument (TM).

As you might expect, it’s garbage. But it’s garbage that’s right
up my alley!

It’s not an easy post to summarize, because frankly, it’s
pretty incoherent. As you’ll see when we starting looking
at the sections, niwrad contradicts himself freely, without seeming
to even notice it, much less realize that it’s actually a problem
when your argument is self-contradictory!

To make sense out of it, the easiest thing to do is to put it into the
context of the basic ID arguments. Bill Dembski created a concept called
“specified complexity” or “complex specified information”. I’ll get to the
definition of that in a moment; but the point of CSI is that according to
IDists, only an intelligent agent can create CSI. If a mechanical process
appears to create CSI, that’s because the CSI was actually created by an
intelligent agent, and embedded in the mechanical process. What our new friend
niwrad does is create a variant of that: instead of just saying “nothing but
an intelligent agent can create CSI”, he says “CSI is uncomputable, therefore
nothing but an intelligent agent can create it” – that it, he’s just injecting
computability into the argument in a totally arbitrary way.

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Dembski Stoops Even Lower: Legal Threats to Silence a Critic

For those who have slightly better memory of recent events than an average
gerbil, you’ll surely remember that not too long ago, the Intelligent Design
folks, with the help of Ben Stein, put together a whole movie about how
evilutionists are all a bunch of evil fascists, out to silence the poor,
hard-working IDers.

You’ll also remember that Bill Dembski has been talking up the fact that
he’s got two peer reviewed papers allegedly about intelligent design. So,
you’d think that after complaining about being locked out of the debate,
now that he has some actual papers to talk about, he’d be eager to, well,
talk about them!

Yeah, right. As it turns out, debate is the last thing that Bill
wants. When someone took a good look at one of his papers, and
posted a critique, Bill’s response was the threaten to sue them for
copyright violation. Knowing how utterly trustworthy the Disco gang
is, I’ve got a screen-capture of the post with the threat below the fold, in
case they try to change history by deleting it.

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Berlinski – still pompous, still wrong.

An anonymous tipster sent me a note to let me know that on one of the Disco
Institute’s sites, my old pal David Berlinski has been arguing that all sorts of
famous mathematicians were really anti-evolution.

I’ve written
about Berlinski before.
In my opinion, he’s one of the most pointlessly
arrogant pompous jackasses I’ve ever been unfortunate enough to deal with. He
practically redefines the phrase “full of himself”.

This latest spewing of him is quite typical. It is mostly content free –
it consists of a whole lot of name-dropping, giving Berlinski a chance to talk
about all of the wonderfully brilliant people he’s close personal
with. And, quite naturally, his close personal friends have told
him all sorts of things about what other famous mathematicians
really thought about evolution.

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Bill Dembski Weasels Under Even My Low Expectations

A brief disclaimer before I start. I do not read Uncommon Descent. I didn’t check
it before writing my post yesterday. So I didn’t know about the content of Dembski’s
post there that I’m about to write about, until I saw Bob O’H‘s comment on my post this morning.

Yesterday, I explained how he used Dawkins’ “weasel” experiment as an example
of his and Marks’ approach to quantifying the information in search. I said that
it was a lousy example for what it was purportedly being used to demonstrate. And I
theorized that he wanted to claim peer-review approval for his “critique” of Dawkins.

Unbeknownst to me, before I even wrote those words, Dembski had already
done that, over on UD (as usual, I refuse to link to UD; you know where to find them
if you really must):

P.S. Our critics will immediately say that this really isn’t a pro-ID article but that it’s about something else (I’ve seen this line now for over a decade once work on ID started encroaching into peer-review territory). Before you believe this, have a look at the article. In it we critique, for instance, Richard Dawkins METHINKS*IT*IS*LIKE*A*WEASEL (p. 1055). Question: When Dawkins introduced this example, was he arguing pro-Darwinism? Yes he was. In critiquing his example and arguing that information is not created by unguided evolutionary processes, we are indeed making an argument that supports ID.

Umm… Bill, the reason that your critics say it isn’t a pro-ID article is because
it doesn’t talk about intelligent design. It’s a rather dull math paper
about how to quantify the information content of a search algorithm that that
allows it to perform well in a particular kind of search domain.

And the paper doesn’t critique Dawkins’ experiment at all! It
describes a variant of the “Weasel” experiment as an example of how
to quantify the landscape information in a partitioned search. It doesn’t
critique that at all; it just presents a straightforward analysis of it.
So it doesn’t actually critique anything.

But more importantly: as people have explained to you hundreds of times by now, Dawkins’ didn’t use locking. Dawkins’ search algorithm was not
partitioned search
. In fact, the algorithm that Dawkins’ used can’t be
modeled as a partitioning search at all.

So, as usual… Dembski is a liar. At this point, there’s just no way to
excuse him. I don’t consider him to be a particularly competent mathematician – but
ignorance and incompetence are no longer an adequate explanation of his rubbish. He’s
had the locking error pointed out to him numerous times; he’s had the difference explained
to him, demonstrated to him, proven to him numerous times – but he still keeps
harping on the incorrect version of the experiment, because it’s an easier target.

Disco Goes Digital

It sometimes seems like every day, some “intelligent design” bozo comes out with
another book rehashing the same-old crap. I usually ignore it. But this time, I felt
like the promotional materials for one of the new books really stepped right into my
part of the world, rhetorically speaking, and so I figured I should give it a
quick smackdown.

The book in question is Stephen C. Meyer’s “Signature in the Cell”. Meyer’s argument
basically comes down to one that is seems like we’ve heard and dealt with a thousand times already. There’s stuff in the cell which looks kinda-sorta like a machine if you look at it in the right way, and since machines were designed, therefore so were cells.

If that’s all he said, I’d just ignore him. Why rehash the same old shit? But no. This time, the DI needed to add a youtube video, which makes some amazingly strong, unsupported claims.

The official description of this is “This animation shows how the digital information encoded in DNA directs protein synthesis inside the cell and provides a unique look at the evidence for intelligent design as described in Dr. Stephen C. Meyers book Signature in the Cell”. The soundtrack, if you pay attention to it, repeats that claim several times in several ways: that DNA is specifically digital information, and that therefore the processes that operate on DNA are effectively digital computations, and since everyone knows that a digital computer required intelligent humans to design it, it’s impossible that the “digital computer” in the cell evolved.

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Dembski Responds

Over at Uncommon Descent, Dembski has responded to my critique of
his paper with Marks. In classic Dembski style, he ignores the
substance of my critique, and resorts to quote-mining.

In my previous post, I included a summary of my past critiques of
why search is a lousy model for evolution. It was a brief summary of
past comments, which did nothing but set the stage for my
critique. But, typically, Dembski pretended that that was the entire
substance of my post, and ignored the rest of it. Very typical of
Dembski – just misrepresent your opponents, create a strawman, and
then pretend that you’ve addressed everything.

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Dembski's Latest: "Life's Conservation Law", and why it's stupid

So. William Dembski, the supposed “Isaac Newton of Information Theory” has a new paper out with co-author Robert Marks. Since I’ve written about Dembski’s bad IT numerous times in the past, I’ve been getting email from readers wanting me to comment on this latest piece of intellectual excreta.

I can sum up my initial reaction to the paper in three words: “same old rubbish”. There’s really nothing new here – this is just another rehash of the same bankrupt arguments that Dembski has been peddling for years. But after thinking about it for a while, I realized that Dembski has actually accomplished something with this paper: in his attempt to argue that evolution can’t possibly outperform random-walks without cheating, he’s actually explained exactly how evolution works. He attempts to characterize that as cheating, but it doesn’t work.

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