Friday, May 28, 2010

Casey Luskin: Information Theory Expert

Well, it looks like the Discovery Institute was so unnerved by my pointing out the misunderstandings and misrepresentations in Stephen Meyer's book, Signature in the Cell, that they devoted two whole chapters to attacking me in their new book. The always-repulsive David Klinghoffer called me a "pygmy" and made fun of the name of my university (page 6). Paul Nelson called my critique a "fluffy confection" and alleged I was guilty of "sophistry". Casey Luskin said I indulged in "gratuitous invective".

The DI's responses to my arguments about Signature are about at the level of what you'd expect from them. I already replied to Paul Nelson months ago here, but of course they didn't see fit to reference that.

In their new book, they trot out lawyer Casey Luskin as their new expert on information theory. Luskin's main points are

(1) Shannon and Kolmogorov complexity are not "useful metrics of functional biological information" and
(2) eminent scientists have adopted Dembski and Meyer's notion of "functional information".

Here's my response:

(1) No measure of information is perfect. Both Shannon and Kolmogorov have proved useful in biological contexts; to claim, as Luskin does that they are "outmoded tools" is ridiculous. An exercise for Luskin, or anyone else: do a search of the scientific literature for "Shannon information" in biology, and count how many hits you get. Now do the same thing for "functional information". See the difference?

Indeed, it is the apparent incompressibility of the genome that suggests, through Kolmogorov complexity, that random mutations played a very significant role in its creation.

(2) Luskin cites a 1973 book by Orgel, where Orgel used the term "specified complexity", as evidence that creationist information is used by real scientists. However, Orgel did not give a rigorous definition of the term, and no one has since then. The term was only used in a popular book, and Orgel never published a definition in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. Dembski later claimed that Orgel's term was the same as his, and Luskin now repeats this falsehood. A lie can travel around the world, while the truth is just lacing up its sneakers.

Luskin points out that very recently, Szostak has introduced a notion of "functional information". However, Szostak's "functional information" is not a general-purpose measure of information. It certainly does not obey the axioms of information as studied by information theorists, and it does not obey Dembski's "law of conservation of information". Furthermore, it is only defined relative to a set of functions that one specifies. Change the functions, and you might get a completely different measure. So it is clear that Szostak's measure is not the same as Dembski's.

Might Szostak's idea prove useful one day? Perhaps, although the jury is still out. It has yet to receive many citations in the scientific literature; one of the papers cited by Luskin is by creationist Kirk Durston. The last time I looked, Durston's paper had essentially no impact at all, to judge by citation counts.

In any event, my claim was "Information scientists do not speak about ‘specified information’ or ‘functional information.’” Luskin offers Szostak as a counterexample. But Szostak is not an information scientist; he's a biologist. No discussion of "functional information" has yet appeared in the peer-reviewed information theory literature, which was my point. Luskin's trotting out of Szostak's paper does not refute that.


Bill said...

Luskin has gotten his ass kicked over Orgel before and by me, to boot, pun intended.

Most people avoid lying because of the personal shame and consequences, however Luskin gets paid to lie and he must be good at it since he's been employed by the Discovery Institute propaganda mill, hair care and tire center for many years.

I met Orgel. I spent part of a summer in a workshop with him and he's no creationist. I'm surprised he hasn't risen from the grave as a zombie and eaten Luskin's brain, except he'd probably want a meal not a snack.

Luskin has been schooled on his misrepresentation of Orgel before. It's no "mistake" at this point. Luskin is deliberately fabricating and lying and as a friend and student (stretching it!) of Orgel I am both disgusted and repelled by Luskin, but not surprised.

Glen Davidson said...

The biggest problem, of course, with their ideas about information is that information in DNA exists in a biologically evolvable form that is thereby quite unlike most of human coded information (actually, much of human info evolves, but could not do so via biological processes or their equivalents).

It would be very easy for evolution to fail this test. The "syntax" could be like most computer programs (those not designed to evolve, that is), largely unable to tolerate significant mistakes (or even many that are to humans "minor"), and incapable of some of the large frame shifts found in evolution, as well as incoherent when doubled like genomes sometimes are (that is to say, with the doubled genes constantly and individually able to interact/interfere with each other).

And indeed, why would a perfect creation ever be made prone to the changes allowed by DNA? That is a poor design for Eden, but a good "strategy" for evolution.

However many idiotic beliefs IDists have about information, they do have some point regarding codes and encoded information. It is somewhat like human language (more correctly, we have very recently evolved capabilities somewhat like those necessary for life to exist), except that information in DNA is exquisitely adapted to, and containing the evidence of, the biological processes of evolution.

Our communication needs would be poorly served if they were configured as DNA information is. However, DNA information would lack the highly conservative, yet incrementally adaptive, nature that it has were it configured at all like human languages and codes are.

Glen Davidson

Samuel said...

I'm no biologist - although I'm thinking of making a turn around to go into medicine instead of law - but from social science my biggest question is....

1. The Bible is adamant that lying is bad.
2. The DI is adamant that the Bible is the inerrant word of God.

And yet.... the DI lies.... a lot.

Cui bono? I don't know how much money the DI rakes in - but I have to wonder who is pumping money into it.

John Farrell said...

I'm beginning to think that Casey Luskin is an 'embedded atheist'; I mean, if an atheist association paid this guy to make the stupidest arguments in order to make the DI look as bad as possible, they couldn't do better.


Mark said...

I am always impressed when half-baked lawyers, potty peers, and other ill-informed people insist that scientists who specialize in certain studies are wrong, and present what they consider to be correct. It's like the the guy who putters in his garage, inventing perpetual motion machines.