Sunday, September 09, 2007

Bethell the Buffoon

Check out the final exchange about intelligent design between John Derbyshire and Tom Bethell, where Bethell insists that creationism and intelligent design are as different as chalk and cheese. (Part 1 here; Part 2 here.)

In it, Bethell demonstrates once again why he is a blathering buffoon. Bethell tells us that "Structures or signals of specified complexity permit an inference to design without any necessary recourse to the supernatural" without bothering to mention that "specified complexity" is junk mathematics and doesn't permit an inference to anything at all, except that Bethell is rather gullible to accept William Dembski's assurances as gospel.

Bethell then goes on to repeat a common lie of the intelligent design movement: that the SETI Project (Search for Extraterrestrial Life) spends its time looking for "such things as a sequence of prime numbers". Sorry, Tom, that was the movie "Contact". You know, fiction?

In real life, SETI researchers look for look for narrow-band signals, because such signals don't appear to originate from simple systems, and because we believe intelligent beings, if they exist, would use a method of communication similar to ours. Repeat after me: SETI detection doesn't use prime numbers, "specified complexity", or red herrings. Bethell claims he's actually visited the SETI project, so how come he doesn't know this? Is it dishonesty, or simple stupidity?

Next, Bethell shows a profound misunderstanding of information theory when he claims, "Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA was asked how the all-important coding information found its way into the DNA in the first place. It's so complex that a reliance on random events will never get us there." Bethell apparently doesn't understand that in the Kolmogorov theory of information, complexity is the same as randomness. It's easy to get complexity; all you need is a source of random events.

Here's a funny one: early on, Bethell solemnly intones that "Science is not properly based on authority, however." Later, however, in discussing the RNA world hypothesis, he says, "But I'm told that the alternative, the "RNA world," has huge complexities of its own. It's all pure guesswork." Oh. So he's been told that the RNA world hypothesis has problems, and he apparently accepts that without even looking into it. But I thought science wasn't based on authority? Mr. Bethell, meet your opponent, Mr. Bethell.

Mr. Bethell needs a good closer, so to finish up he reaches deep into the creationist playbook and comes up with the Colin Patterson story. It goes without saying that Bethell gets the details wrong; Patterson, for example, did not deny common descent. For the sake of argument, let's pretend for a moment that Patterson is on Bethell's side. Then the point of Bethell's misremembered anecdote is that we should rely on the authority of Colin Patterson, but not on the authority of all the other biologists who accept that evolution is the best explanation we have for the diversity of life as we see it today.

Altogether, a rather unimpressive performance for Mr. Bethell, who has been denying evolution for 30 years without learning anything about it. Funny -- he behaves just like a creationist.


Anonymous said...

Bethell also is a theory of relativity denier, which of course, he has no capability of understanding.

Ian said...

According to his Wikipedia article (which, mind you, has a big banner saying "This article may violate Wikipedia's policy on biographies of living persons"), Bethell is also part of the "AIDS reappraisal" crowd.

Why does that not surprise me...

truti said...


Do you mean to tell us that you wasted your time reading the tripe published by this guy Bethell? You are very kind. Dembski's prattling on evolution can be written in Type 34 on the back of a postage stamp with space to spare. Bethell is not good even for a laugh!

Anonymous said...

If you would permit a metadiscussion:

Mr. Bethell, meet your opponent, Mr. Bethell

This is an effective and amusing rhetorical construct. Is this something you've just invented now, or have you seen this elsewhere before?

Jeffrey Shallit said...

David - I doubt it's original with me, but I don't have a source.

Unknown said...

Mr. Bethell, meet your opponent, Mr. Bethell

Jeffrey Shallit said...

David - I doubt it's original with me, but I don't have a source.

I assume that it's a take-off from "We have met the enemy, and it is us". Numerous variations on that statement have been made, and this just seems to be in line with the others.

On the web "We have met the enemy, and it is us," is attributed to Walt Kelly.

Glen D

Anonymous said...

God help us. Egnor has weighed in:

The stupidity hurts.

Pete said...

You say, "In real life, SETI researchers look for look for narrow-band signals, because such signals don't appear to originate from simple systems, and because we believe intelligent beings, if they exist, would use a method of communication similar to ours."
OK, so it is possible to reason from the nature of data back to a probable, or possible, intelligent cause?
Right or wrong?

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Troll Peter:

Yes. I deduce from the text of your message that it came from a, well, somewhat intelligent cause.

That's a far cry from the rarefied design inferences ID proponents want to make. Go read Elsberry and Wilkins' article on the subject.

Pete said...

Thanks Jeff.
But the url you gave was wrong. The correct one is
(Why am I a troll? I don't lurk under bridges and scare children!)

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Peter the Troll:

Actually, the URL I gave was correct, but blogger truncated it for some mysterious reason. You get what you pay for.

Anonymous said...

Dear Shallit,

You are yet another fine example of a highly educated fool. There are just so many around these days!

You fit very nicely the description of the typical Darwinist dupe described quite aptly by Hoyle:
"So it came about from 1860 onward that new believers [in Darwinism] became in a sense mentally ill, or, more precisely, either you became mentally ill or you quitted the subject of biology, as I had done in my early teens." Math & Evolution

"Older folk in the know told me that selection didn't operate to make complicated things out of complicated things, only to make complex things out of simple ones. I couldn't understand how anything of the sort could be true, because, unlikely as it was, it would surely be less difficult to make a
rabbit out of a potato than to make a rabbit out of sludge, which is what people said had happened, people with line after line of letters after their names who should have known what they were talking about, but obviously didn't." (Hoyle, F., "Mathematics of Evolution," [1987]