Saturday, February 25, 2006

Larry Witham: ID Flack

I am currently re-reading Larry Witham's 2003 overview of the intelligent design movement, By Design: Science and the Search for God. Those who follow the ID movement closely know Witham as a former religion reporter for the Moonie-controlled Washington Times, and as the author of several uncritical articles about ID. Another tip-off that the content would be slanted was that this volume was donated to my university by the Trinity Evangelical Missionary Church, a local group that has donated a significant fraction of the antievolutionary content of our library. So it did not come as a surprise to me in my first reading that By Design was slanted. What did come as a surprise was the level of bias and misrepresentation, even to the point of blatant self-contradiction. I've finally gotten around to listing some of them.

A complete catalog of the misrepresentations would take dozens of pages, so I'll just focus on two chapters, entitled "The Movement" and "By Design".

On page 116, Witham says "What struck [Charles] Thaxton most, however, was that apparently no one in the science community dared raise the question of information. Much as a written page suggests an author, complex chemical information in DNA suggests the work of a mind---a key argument that was to be developed in the intelligent design movement. Leslie Orgel had mentioned the information puzzle in a footnote and used the term specified complexity to explain why the DNA codes were so different from redundant crystal structures."

And on page 117: "Nobody talked about DNA as "information" because it smacked of intention, not of chance and law."

So, is it really true that "nobody" talked about information with respect to DNA? And is the reason why that "information" suggests the work of a mind?

No. Once the structure of DNA was elucidated by Watson and Crick, the idea of DNA as a carrier for information occurred to everyone. In his classic 1958 paper, "On Protein Synthesis", which appeared in a Cambridge University Press volume entitled The Biological Replication of Macromolecules, Crick wrote (pp. 143-144):

"A systematic discussion of our present knowledge of protein synthesis could usefully be set out under three headings, each dealing with a flux: the flow of energy, the flow of matter, and the flow of information. I shall not discuss the first of these here. I shall have something to say about the second, but I shall particularly emphasize the third--the flow of information.

"By information I mean the specification of the amino acid sequence of the protein...


"As in even a small bacterial cell there are probably a thousand different kinds of protein, each containing some hundreds of amino acids in its own rigidly determined sequence, the amount of hereditary information required for sequentialization is quite considerable.


"In other words, the viral RNA appears to carry at least part of the information which determines the composition of the viral protein."
(emphasis in original)

Crick introduced two important ideas in this paper. The first was the "Sequence Hypothesis":

"In its simplest form it assumes that the specificity of a piece of nucleic acid is expressed solely by the sequence of its bases, and that this sequence is a (simple) code for the amino acid sequence of a particular protein."

The second was what Crick jokingly called the "Central Dogma":

"This states that once 'information' has passed into protein it cannot get out again. In more detail, the transfer of information from nucleic acide to nucleic acid, or from nucleic acid to protein may be possible, but transfer from protein to protein, or from protein to nucleic acid is impossible. Information means here the precise determination of sequence, either of bases in the nucleic acid or of amino acid residues in the protein."

So, contrary to Witham and Thaxton, not only was the term "information" being used by the biological community well prior to Orgel's use of the term "specified complexity" in 1973, it constituted an important part of one of the most fundamental papers of the field.

Even well before the structure of DNA was deduced, information-like ideas in biology were obvious even to non-biologists. While he did not use the term "information", Erwin Schrödinger, in his celebrated 1943 series of lectures entitled What is Life?, stated that the "most essential part of a living cell--the chromosome fibre--may suitably be called an aperiodic crystal" (emphasis in original) and spoke of chromosomes as an "hereditary code-script". And the same year as Watson-Crick, a 1953 volume, edited by Henry Quastler, was entitled Information Theory in Biology.

Now here's the ironic part. After claiming on page 116 that "nobody in the science community dared raise the question of information", only 29 pages later Witham himself discusses "information" and the Crick's "sequence hypothesis", on page 145 of By Design! Being an ID flack means consistency gets thrown out the window.

Another tool of the ID flack is to praise the work of creationist hacks. For example, on p. 117 Dean Kenyon's book Biochemical Predestination is labeled as "seminal". Now a truly seminal work in biology would received hundreds of citations. According to the on-line citation search "Web of Science", Biochemical Predestination got 25. Sorry, 25 citations does not make a work seminal. (By contrast, Dawkins' book The Selfish Gene has over 3000 citations.)

Witham claims Thaxton's book The Mystery of Life's Origin (co-authored with Bradley and Olsen) "was unique in laying out all the current origin-of-life theories and how they fell short". Funny, I thought Shapiro's Origins, published about the same time, did that too. He also claims Thaxton's book "opened a new debate". But not much of one, it appears. Web of Science reveals only 25 citations, some of which are by other ID hacks such as Stephen Meyer, Rob Koons, and Henry Schaeffer.

On page 118, Witham favorably mentions Michael Denton's critique Evolution: A Theory in Crisis. But he does not mention that Denton's work was riddled with flaws and misunderstandings.

Here's how, on page 119, Witham discusses criticism of the book Of Pandas and People: "Attacking the book became a pastime for evolutionists in public education and the American Civil Liberties Union". But there is not a single mention of any of the many false claims and misrepresentations in Pandas.

On page 123 we have John West (yet another ID hack) wondering, "Where does information come from?" But don't expect Witham to point out the pure idiocy of this question and the simple answer it has (information comes from randomness).

On page 132, Witham claims "Behe keeps up his research". Not so. John Lynch, at Stranger Fruit, examined Behe's research record and concluded that he has published hardly anything with scientific content since 1998.

On page 146, Witham discusses Dembski's "complex specified information" (CSI). He claims it "exists in nature and in the scrambled security codes on credit cards". Here Witham seems confused. To my knowledge Dembski has never spoken about "scrambled security codes on credit cards". Rather, in Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science & Theology, Dembski claimed that it was the number on the credit card itself, not the security code, that constituted CSI. Witham treats CSI as if it were a coherent concept, completely ignoring the many critiques of Dembski's work, even though they were available long before By Design was published.

Witham ends his Chapter 8 by quoting physicist Paul Davies as follows: "Dembski's attempt to quantify design, or provide mathematical criteria for design, is extremely useful. I'm concerned that the suspicion of a hidden agenda is going to prevent that sort of work from receiving the recognition it deserves. Strictly speaking, you see, science should be judged purely on the science and not on the scientist."

I have to admit, I'm not terribly impressed with Davies and his understanding of information theory. I wrote once to correct some mistakes he made in The Fifth Miracle, and, to his credit, he eventually wrote back, admitting his errors and offering to correct them in a future edition. Later I asked him how, precisely, he thought Dembski's ideas were "useful", and what Dembski had to offer that was over and above the work of Kirchherr, Li, and Vitányi. He wrote back saying he did not want to be drawn into a debate. I note that Davies did not say he stood by his previous assessment of Dembski.

Witham could have, instead, ended his chapter with another view of Dembski's work, from David Wolpert: "I say Dembski "attempts to" turn this trick because despite his invoking the NFL theorems, his arguments are fatally informal and imprecise. Like monographs on any philosophical topic in the first category, Dembski's is written in jello. There simply is not enough that is firm in his text, not sufficient precision of formulation, to allow one to declare unambiguously 'right' or 'wrong' when reading through the argument. All one can do is squint, furrow one's brows, and then shrug."

But of course, ID flacks like to pretend that legitimate criticism doesn't exist. If you've read this far, here's the moral: if you are looking for an honest and accurate assessment of intelligent design, don't turn to a flack like Larry Witham.


Anonymous said...

Implicit in this essay is the assumption that Witham is writing with the intention of informing his reader. After all, for what other purpose would anyone write anything?

I suggest Witham has two purposes here, neither of which is to inform. The first is to convert, by providing a solid-looking case for anyone not intimate with the field and not outright opposed (and thus motivated to wonder why almost no scientists agree with such an open-and-shut case).

And of course, the second purpose is to reinforce existing creationist beliefs and provide ammunition for those holding them. After all, very few people even among those who accept the scientific position, are equipped to answer Witham's claims.

So the quality of Witham's effort needs to be assessed in terms of how well he achieves HIS goals, rather than the goals Shallit thinks he *should* have set. And ironically, if Shallit's efforts have increased sales by a single copy, Witham's goals are better reached. In the world of PR, there is no such thing as bad publicity.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Yeah, Flint, you made exactly the same comment before about my analysis of Dembski. It was dumb then and it's dumb now.

My goal is not to analyze Witham's book according to his own criteria for success. If you want
that kind of analysis, do it yourself.

My goals are (1) to inform the readers of my blog (and those of Panda's Thumb) so they'll be ready to answer any creationist who claims Witham is an authoritative source; (2) to chastise Witham so that if he sees this critique, he'll know his pretense didn't go unnoticed. And maybe, just maybe, he'll realize what a dishonest hack job he did and not do it again.

Now, why don't you analyze my critique based on my criteria for success?

Anonymous said...

As seems mandatory with IDers, letting facts get in the way of their IDeas would only confuse them. As my late grandmother would say:"Not only are they liars, they are sloppy about it."

Anonymous said...


OK, in that case you did a wonderful job of preaching to the choir. Granted, the problem with books like this is that your corrections have a hard time reaching the target audience. I think most of your readers already understand that it is not possible to be an honest creationist.

However, you seem to be saying that Witham does NOT realize he did a dishonest hack job, and that's dumber than MY comment. Witham is preaching, not informing. You might as well hope that the preacher at the local church will stand at the pulpit and say "Of course, there is no evidence of any gods, so everything I say here is just stuff ignorant people made up." NOT going to happen.

Witham is presenting his material in support of an ideological goal. I don't understand why you expect the goal to change simply because the statements necessary to support must be false.

Behe actually subjected himself to cross-examination and Rothschild made a fool of him under circumstances where Behe could neither ignore the questions nor change the subject - in a case that has gathered extraordinary national attention. Now that Behe has been chastized thoroughly and publicly, has he changed his tune?

Hey, I'm just frustrated that the intended audience WANTS to hear these comforting lies, and that this audience is so discouragingly large. You're doing what you can, and it's a battle worth fighting.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

In the creationist spectrum, there is a lot of diversity. Most creationists, of course, are just misled. But even among the leaders, there are those that are just plain irredeemably evil, and those that are not. Paul Nelson, for example, seems to fall in the latter camp.

Maybe I'm naive, but I don't know Witham well enough to know what camp he falls into. Maybe he is reachable, and maybe not. But it's worth a try. I've invited him to respond -- let's see if he does.

Steve Reuland said...

Flint, do you ever post anything other than pointless complaints that we "preach to the choir?" I don't think you understand what it is we do. It is not our intent to "preach" to anyone, or to offer up a set of pat talking-points for mass consumption. Our goal is to provide thorough critiques of ID material for those people who are interested in whether or not ID arguments are right, not those people whose minds are closed to the possibility one way or the other. Maybe someone needs to start a propaganda campaign for those people who cannot be swayed by evidence and reason. You go right ahead and do that, and meanwhile our target audience will remain those people with enough education and interest to explore the actual issues at stake.

Anonymous said...

Steve Reuland:

I'm not complaining about what you are saying; clearly, I agree with every bit of it. My concern is where and to whom what you are saying is presented. Believe it or not, Jeffrey is ALSO engaged in a public relations campaign, as is this and the PT blogs and others.

Your and Jeffrey's corrections to Witham are valuable far less to the degree that they are right, than to the degree that they are presented to "swing voters"; those not familiar enough with the issues to have set up into an indelible position.

Perhaps what we need is some more discussion as to where and how these materials should be presented. In seminars? In public school classes devoted to...what? In hollywood movies, museum presentations, TV news broadcasts? More "Darwin Sundays"?

I don't have the answer, but I strongly suspect not nearly enough people are being reached. I also hope there is some way to increase the number of people who wish to be reached. Some way to light the right fire under opinion-makers with broad audiences. Maybe a few Larry King shows? Correcting the errors is important. Getting those corrections wide exposure is perhaps even more important.

Jeffrey has done a great job nailing the issues. Now, as Doonesbury's Mark Slackmeyer said about blogs generally, Who reads this stuff? How can I contribute to Genie Scott's budget?

Anonymous said...

Contributing to NCSE is easy. Go to this site:

Then become a member, or donate, or do both.

-- Wesley R. Elsberry

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the passing reference to Kirchherr, Li, and Vitányi. I did a search and found their paper "The Miraculous Universal Distribution", which I've been reading.

It will be useful to have as a way of short-cutting some really annoying arguments I've had on Panda's Thumb with otherwise sensible people who seem to want to dismiss as cherry picking every claim made without having a specific a priori hypothesis.

I eventually managed to construct an argument using a p-value based on Kolmogorov complexity that finding any highly compressible sequence (e.g. a sufficiently simple encoding of the first n digits of pi for sufficiently large n in a sufficiently short sequence relative to n) of allegedly random characters would be strong statistical evidence that the sequence was most likely not the result of a uniform random process after all. (Caveat: evolution is not a uniform random process.)

I had a feeling that this kind of argument was pretty standard in randomness testing, but I hadn't been able to find a reference to point to. This paper seems to be a good exposition of the basic principle, and saves me from having to explain my point at length.