Wednesday, January 08, 2014

The Intellectual Fraud of Intelligent Design


Back in 2001, Wesley Elsberry and I began working on a long paper in which we did what intelligent design advocates demanded: take their claims seriously and examine them. In particular, we looked at William Dembski's claims about "CSI" or "complex specified information" or "specified complexity".

Dembski claimed to have created a mathematical methodology that would accurately determine if something is designed or not. His method was rather complicated, involving (as we wrote then) "a choice of probability space, a probability estimate, a discussion of relevant background knowledge, an independence calculation, a rejection function, and a rejection region". In Dembski's view, each of these needed to be given in detail before design can be concluded.

Despite the fact that Dembski claimed that many things contained CSI, such as the 16-digit numbers on VISA cards, he hardly ever gave the calculations justifying these claims. In fact, as far as I can see, these calculations were only given for four things (as we discuss in our paper on p. 16), and even then, the descriptions were sometimes sketchy. And in one of Dembski's calculations, his numbers were off by 65 orders of magnitude. Years passed before Dembski conceded this.

In another article, Elsberry and I challenged intelligent design advocates to do the calculations that Dembski was unwilling or unable to do. It is now more than ten years later, and nobody has taken up the challenge.

So I always find it amusing when some intelligent design advocate starts babbling about "CSI" or "complex specified information" or "specified complexity" or "FSCO/I" without providing the six items Dembski said were necessary. The latest babbler is Casey Luskin, who proudly asserts that a sculpture in the Atacama desert "exhibits high levels of specified complexity" and is therefore designed. Needless to say, Luskin doesn't give any of the six things Dembski said were necessary.

Luskin's babbling can be reduced to "it looks designed, therefore it is". But one could assert exactly the same thing about the Giant's Causeway.

Anyway, Luskin is wrong. We conclude that the sculpture in the Atacama Desert is designed not because of "specified complexity", but because it is an artifact: a characteristic product of human activity. We know that humans sculpt things; we know that parts of the body are frequent choices for sculptors; we know that artists use iron and cement in their work. All this combines to suggest "artifact" as the most plausible hypothesis, not "created by erosion".

Intelligent design is a kind of intellectual fraud. It erects a complicated mathematical methodology to fool the rubes, but then it hardly ever uses this methodology to do any calculations. The goal is to wear the cloak of mathematical legitimacy without revealing the empty shell beneath. Smart people should see this scam for what it is.

P. S. Another one of our challenges was, using Dembski's methodology, to identify, as designed, some object on the earth whose status (designed/undesigned) is currently not known. This could be, for example, something found on an archeological dig. Needless to say, 10 years later, nobody's succeeded at that challenge, either. Looks like that methodology is real useful, right?

16 comments:

MNb said...

"nobody has taken up the challenge"
Yeah, but you know, that actually demands effort, not to mention work. We all know IDiot methodology by now, don't we? Consult this page:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_logical_fallacies

and then follow the procedure as laid out by The Sensuous Curmudgeon:

http://sensuouscurmudgeon.wordpress.com/2013/12/18/icr-a-great-year-for-creationist-astronomy/

and throw the results of this "research" on internet. If the IDiot really feels icky he (quite rarely a she) might compose a book.

Diogenes said...

Here Luskin has exposed the fraud of intelligent design. Luskin pretends he has done a mathematical calculation on the "unlikelihood" of the hand shape, and on its "specification." He shows no calculations because he did none.

Yet by an identical method, this giant hand would also display Dembski's "specified complexity." Thus, natural processes produce structures that have specified complexity.

Therefore, if in fact biological structures were to contain specified complexity, we should assume by default that species are produced by natural processes, as this is the more likely case.

Hey Casey, your Intelligent Designer is giving you the finger.

Piotr GÄ…siorowski said...

There are also hands in outer space

t_p_hamilton said...

Functional Information As Specified, Complex Organization, or FIASCO

Unknown said...

Jeffrey,
I haven't read Luskin's article and so i don't know much about this sculpture inn the Atacama Desert -- only what I infer from you blog. (I am assuming it looks pretty clearly like something humans made.) With that caveat though, I am curious to hear your answers to the following:

1. If that sculpture were instead found say on Mars, what would you conclude? Would you believe then (still) that it was an 'artifact'? I realize that it would cause you to then seek out some further explanation about how humans could have been once on Mars, or other intelligent beings did it, or whatever ... but if you did anything other than simply be content concluding that it occurred by purely natural causes -- then that would seem to indicate that you had implicitly performed some kind of rational mental process and had concluded that it was designed by **somebody** (thereby probably causing you to seek resolution to the apparent conflict with your belief that humans have never been on Mars.)
2. Along a similar vein... if you looked at Mount Rushmore, and didn't know the history of it, and were told by all creditable sources that it was definitely NOT carved by any human beings in the last 150 years (since before T.R.), would you not STILL be convinced (and absolutely convinced) that it was NOT a purely natural occurrence resulting from wind and sand, etc?

My purpose here is not some lame taunting of you in support of ID proponents. I am just curious whether you agree that there does seem to exist some logical procedures by which, in some situations, we would clearly evaluate and conclude that certain things have an 'intelligence' as their source. Dembki's explanatory filter and his CSI may well be flawed, but he does seem to be trying to identify and codify something that we do actually do at times. (i.e. recognize intelligent causes)

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Unknown: you can apply the same reasoning to New Hampshire's "Old Man of the Mountain". If you found that on Mars (the pre-destroyed version), would you conclude it was made by a person?

"there does seem to exist some logical procedures": no, there are no logical procedures. Science isn't done by logic alone; we use induction much more than deduction. It's absurd to think that there is a purely mathematical or logical characterization of what people, or other intelligent beings we know nothing of, can do.

As for Dembski's explanatory filter and CSI being flawed, why do you say they "may" be flawed? We know they are flawed. CSI because of my article with Elsberry, and the explanatory filter because it doesn't match what actually happens when we find things that could be artifacts. Read about the discovery of quasars. In that case, the first tentative hypothesis was that it was caused by humans or other intelligence; that was ruled out and then it was concluded they were natural -- just the opposite of what Dembski says we do.

It looks to me like you've swallowed intelligent design kool-aid too uncritically.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Oh, and by "quasars" I meant, of course, "pulsars". I often say stupid things early in the morning.

Unknown said...

Seriously?!? Are you really going to compare the Old Man of the Mountain to Mount Rushmore??
If OMOM were found on Mars, a school child would assess that it was an interesting outcropping, but nothing more. It resembles a man only in terms of a silhouette of a cartoon character (no real human has that silhouette) and only if viewed from one particular angle. MR, on the other hand distinctly resembles the full 3D features of four particular historical figures and does so from all points of view.

Why did you ignore the actual question of what YOU would do, if MR was found on Mars?
We both know if OMOM was found on Mars, you would agree with the school child... it's interesting.. even remarkable..but still far more likely to be just a natural outcropping than anything else. Can you honestly say you would make the same conclusion about MR on Mars?

Look at it another way... if MR were found on Mars it would probably be reported on the front page of every newspaper n the world. OMOM wouldn't get that coverage and you know it.

Your example of pulsars is similar... regular periodicity is far too common in nature for any one to go from surprise and consideration of an intelligent source to actually concluding an intelligent source. Now if the pulses conveyed something like the Fibonacci series or a pattern of prime numbers.. then again, you know very well that we'd all be inclined to believe there was something "un-natural" causing the pulses.

And just as science is "not done by logic alone", it is also not done by mere assertions of certainty as you seem prone to. ( You declare with absolute certainty "There are no logical procedures" and "We **know** they are flawed") We actually **don't** know those things for certain.. there are arguments for both sides and imperfections in those arguments on both sides.

Your declarations remind me of something I've not seen for about 20 years -- Jacob Bronowski discusses, near the end of his Ascent of Man video series, the dangers of believing one is right with absolute certainty.


Unknown said...

Diogenes -- That photo of the clouds is excellent!
Is there a copyright holder? I would like to use it in an article if possible.
(Don't worry -- it's an article critical of Intelligent Design.)

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Your declarations remind me of something I've not seen for about 20 years -- Jacob Bronowski discusses, near the end of his Ascent of Man video series, the dangers of believing one is right with absolute certainty.

Oh, please, save your Nazi allusions for someone else. You're the one making claims like "We both know" and "OMOM wouldn't get that coverage and you know it" when I am, in fact, arguing that resemblance alone doesn't give a compelling case. What is really compelling in Mount Rushmore is the complete case, including the fact that we know people sculpt figures, and artifact nature of the work, like marks of stone tools and dynamite on the rocks.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

It resembles a man only in terms of a silhouette of a cartoon character

People draw silhouettes all the time. People draw cartoon characters all the time.

only if viewed from one particular angle

People draw tromp l'oeil figures all the time that only make sense when viewed from one particular angle. Look up "anamorphosis".

You're not making a compelling case against "The Man of the Mountain"; you're just asserting it. A compelling case against it comes not from the resemblance or lack of it, but from the lack of marks indicating sculpting with tools.

regular periodicity is far too common in nature for any one to go from surprise and consideration of an intelligent source to actually concluding an intelligent source

You didn't read about the actual discovery of pulsars, did you? What you assert would never "actually" be "conclude[d]" was, in fact, the very first thing considered. You don't even understand why it would be common and reasonable to infer human causation for periodic signals - namely, that humans cause periodic signals all the time (e.g., the 60hz and 50hz periodicity of electric lines).

Why do you talk with such confidence about things you haven't investigated?

Now if the pulses conveyed something like the Fibonacci series or a pattern of prime numbers.. then again, you know very well that we'd all be inclined to believe there was something "un-natural" causing the pulses.

No, we wouldn't necessarily. The Fibonacci sequence (not "series", this is a common mistake by non-mathematicians) occurs in nature in several places and so do prime numbers (e.g., in cicada periodicity). To non-mathematicians and non-scientists, there is something magical or mysterious about these sequences, but to anyone who has studied the basics of algorithms, they are not so mysterious. If you have a case to make that it is more likely that a Fibonacci number signal comes from people than some other natural source, make it; don't just assert it.

This is all discussed in my long article with Elsberry, which I advise you to read before making confident pronouncements about things you haven't seriously thought about.

Unknown said...

Jeffrey, try not to get so focused on trying to find places where you can score points. Relax (nobody was in any way implying you were a Nazi) and try to just give some honest attempt at objective inquiry.

You’ve yet to answer the original questions at all.
In fact, you’ve now veered so far off topic, you seem to have gotten confused. Yes... people can draw simple figures. Yes... they also create simple periodic signals. But the discussion was about recognizing things that seem too unique for nature to be the source, not about things in nature that are simple but could have been produced by humans because we are aware that humans often produce simple things.

Do you really think lecturing on series vs. sequence is a relevant, let alone useful, contribution to topic being discussed? (And the silly veiled derisions regarding non-mathematicians – they just make you sound petty.)

I’m fully aware of the mathematical definitions of series and sequences, but in fact it is very common (even among mathematicians) to refer to the Fibonacci series, particularly in common conversation. Precision in using such terms becomes relevant when the difference itself is relevant to the topic at hand. In our discussion, using the more colloquial word ‘series’ was simply more readable (especially for those inerudite “non-scientists”.) Similarly, I used phrases such as “you know very well” for readability. The usage of the word 'know' there is quite different than your usage of “We **know** they are flawed”. The first is a common informal phrase (as in “surely, you can admit...”). If you read my entries a little less emotionally, you will probably see I’ve made no assertions of the kind you make.

By the way, the presence of certain prime numbers in nature is not the same thing as a pattern of prime numbers, which is what was being suggested with respect to a possible series of signals from a pulsar. (Note ... that wasn’t a reference to a “series” as defined in mathematics ... you understand that, right?)

But all of this is useless diversion. And it’s my fault – I’ve looked at your writings now and then for several years, so I should have known better. You have this pattern of ignoring the key arguments, and instead spending most of your effort trying to show that you, unlike those fools who don’t hold your particular views, belong to some scientific elite. You also seem to think no one is qualified to contribute to any field in which they do not hold a graduate degree, or more precisely, you use that criticism when it suits your needs, while at the same time writing about all kinds of topics outside your own educational domain.

I hope, but doubt, that you might try to answer the original questions posed, and give some objective thought to just how we humans do come to conclusions (which in this context means ‘firm beliefs’) that certain artifacts have an intelligent source, and would in certain cases even do so based only on the artifact itself.

I am, by the way, a scientist as well as an engineer, (and have a doctorate too… imagine that!). In fact, you teach at one of my alma maters. And I’ve spent my career in multiple fields and in both public and private research. (And I've read about pulsars... and both sides of the ID and evolution debates, etc. etc. etc.) But I’ve thought it best, given the controversial aspect of the topic, to remain “Unknown”. That and I’m too lazy to figure out how to change that profile label.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

nobody was in any way implying you were a Nazi

Don't lie. The Bronowski reference you gave was to his trip to Auschwitz in the TV series.

try to just give some honest attempt at objective inquiry

Now a veiled suggestion that I am dishonest.

you will probably see I’ve made no assertions of the kind you make.

You're right - my claims are backed up with facts. Yours are pure assertion.

the presence of certain prime numbers in nature is not the same thing as a pattern of prime numbers

You don't seem to understand the argument. Nature has the building blocks to construct algorithmic processes. We see, in fact, that nature does construct prime numbers as byproducts of some natural processes. Therefore it is not a stretch to think that a sequence of two or more prime numbers could occur through natural -- and in fact, relatively simple -- processes.

You have this pattern of ignoring the key arguments, and instead spending most of your effort trying to show that you, unlike those fools who don’t hold your particular views, belong to some scientific elite.

Translation: "my arguments having been torn to shreds, I will now resort to insults and amateur psychologizing."

"I hope, but doubt, that you might try to answer the original questions posed, and give some objective thought to just how we humans do come to conclusions (which in this context means ‘firm beliefs’) that certain artifacts have an intelligent source, and would in certain cases even do so based only on the artifact itself."

All that bluster, and yet you can't bring yourself to read my article with Elsberry, which does exactly what you ask and (by the way) was published in a philosophy journal. Where can we read your contributions to academic philosophy.

As for "objective thought", you don't seem to be displaying it at all.

But I’ve thought it best, given the controversial aspect of the topic, to remain “Unknown”.

Translation: "I prefer to make veiled Nazi references, insult the blogger, and refuse to give any actual argument, let alone read the paper where the blogger answers my questions at length, and I can't do that if I don't use a pseudonym."

Jeffrey Shallit said...

In fact, you’ve now veered so far off topic, you seem to have gotten confused.

No, you're the one who is confused.

You were the one who confidently asserted that if the Old Man of the Mountain were found on Mars, "a school child would assess that it was an interesting outcropping, but nothing more". You gave as your reasons that "It resembles a man only in terms of a silhouette of a cartoon character (no real human has that silhouette) and only if viewed from one particular angle."

I pointed out that these criteria are not sufficient for ruling out human causality, since people create silhouettes, cartoons, and tromp l'oeil figures all the time. By your criteria, we would rule out human causality.

If you have a list of necessary and sufficient criteria for determining human causality, then present them. Otherwise, you're just behaving like the typical intelligent design advocate: happy to say "It looks designed to me" and think that this constitutes an argument.

Unknown said...

Bronowski wasn't warning against THE Nazi's; he was using that history to warn that absolutism within an ordinary society can lead it to horrific ends, like what happened in Germany.

And you lost track of my actual criteria of the OMOM case, Jeffrey. Try to follow:

OMOM + Mars ==> natural causes easily believed

MR + Mars ==> a problem, in that most honest, intelligent, and rational people would be quite sure it couldn't be the result of natural causes. How exactly they conclude that -- THAT is an interesting phenomena and worth trying to understand.

That is where this discussion began, and apparently where it will have to end. It is clear that you simply can't follow these kinds of inquiries. Your emotions or your intellect, or both, limit you too much. Can't help you.


Jeffrey Shallit said...

Bronowski wasn't warning against THE Nazi's; he was using that history to warn that absolutism within an ordinary society can lead it to horrific ends, like what happened in Germany.

Your weak attempt to wriggle out of your odious comparison is noted. Your inablity to detect that you are guilty of what you are accusing me of is also noted.

And you lost track of my actual criteria of the OMOM case, Jeffrey

No, I am simply following your "logic", such as it is. Don't blame me if you are unable to present a coherent argument.

in that most honest, intelligent, and rational people

Again with the slurs against my honesty!

How exactly they conclude that -- THAT is an interesting phenomena and worth trying to understand.

On the contrary, it's not that interesting at all. Evolution has built people to be strong agency detectors. We see faces all the time, even when they aren't there; it's called "pareidolia" and only a vague resemblance to a face is needed.

It is clear that you simply can't follow these kinds of inquiries.

Right. That's why I have an article in a philosophy journal about this very subject and you have inchoate remarks on a blog where you don't even dare sign your name.