Thursday, December 15, 2011

You Can Lead a Creationist to Knowledge...

...but you can't make him think, as this post at Uncommon Descent makes clear.

It doesn't matter if bad creationist arguments are debunked, because they just keep bringing up the same bad arguments over and over again, as if no one ever explained why they are bad.

Here we have lawyer Barry Arrington (not a mathematician or biologist, as far as I can see) explaining Dembski's concept of design detection and making exactly the same bogus claims we debunked long ago.

Problem #1: the notion of "specification" is incoherent. Arrington says “ten straight flushes in a row" is a legitimate specification because "This pattern is not post hoc". OK, how about "100 straight flushes in a row, except one is not". Is that legit? Why or why not? How about "50 out of 100 deals are straight flushes"? Is that legit? Why or why not? How about "one straight flush, then a straight, then a flush, then 3 consecutive 4 of a kind, then two more straight flushes"? Why or why not? We explain the problem in detail in our paper.

Bottom line: there is a good way to decide about the reasonableness of a "specification" -- namely, Kolmogorov complexity -- but it is not anywhere near as simple as "valid" or "invalid" or "independent" or "not independent". When you use Kolmogorov complexity as your basis for deciding about specifications, then you get the theory of Kirchherr, Li and Vitanyi, not Dembski's theory.

Problem #2: Even if you can make the notion of "specification" reasonable, we showed that Dembski's claim about the "law of conservation of information" is bogus. The result is that his conclusions about design don't follow.

Problem #3: The proper way to do probability, the way that everyone else except creationists does it, is to pre-specify a region and then see if your observation matches that region. If you do so, and the probability of hitting the region out of the whole space is very very very small, then the proper conclusion is not "design"; it is simply that you estimated the probabilities wrong. It could well have occurred because a person arranged it that way, but it could also be because you didn't know about some non-human process that could result in the same observation. In our paper we illustrate this with some examples.

That's what makes creationism different from legit science: creationists just pretend that criticism doesn't exist and recycle the same bad arguments over and over.


Corey said...

It seems that Eric Hovind is parroting the same arguments that his father used with a new DVD set. Of course, this is what I expect of him especially when he was caught editing a debate of three Fundamentally Flawed podcasts.

Harriet said...

It is probably best to treat creationists the way that we treat angle trisectors and the like. They are cranks, period.

However their bogus probability arguments make for a good classroom teaching moment. I take a deck of cards, shuffle them and pass a card to every student. Then I say: "calculate the probability that each of you got EXACTLY the card that you got" (easy to do). Then I ask: did WE just experience a miracle?

Of course, they laugh and say "no"..and then I point out that this is a mistake that creationists frequently make.

Reginald Selkirk said...

It doesn't matter if bad creationist arguments are debunked, because they just keep bringing up the same bad arguments over and over again,
Arrington says “ten straight flushes in a row"

Creationist arguments as 'floaters.'

Anonymous said...

Harriet, and what if each student multiplied the face vaule of their card by two, and to a person it equaled the day of their birth?

You see, what cirtic always ignore is the specification.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

what cirtic always ignore is the specification.

Liar. I said precisely what was wrong in Dembski's notion of "specification", and I have a published paper discussing it in detail.

So how about addressing that, instead of lying?

Human Ape said...

My new favorite quote: "You Can Lead a Creationist to Knowledge...but you can't make him think."

Science deniers are certain evolution is impossible, so they have no reason to think. For every one of the thousands of evidences for evolution, they never try to understand. Instead they look for imaginary problems. They repeatedly show that stupid can't be fixed.

Anonymous said...

my page 6 of the klv paper link has a garbled laplace quote

what is the original?

Jeffrey Shallit said...


Sorry, I can't parse your question. What is klv?

Miranda said...

"then you get the theory of Kirchherr, Li and Vitanyi, not Dembski's theory."

There's your KLV.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, the klv paper is at "then you get the theory of Kirchherr, Li and Vitanyi, " at

[Which is going to take me a few more days to slog through.]

I guess I have the correct answer here:

I also happened to pick up from the library Sharon Bertsch Mcgrayne's "The Theory That Would Not Die" about Bayes' Rule. Is this any good?

Grumpy Bob said...

I think that by "klv" anonymous means Kirchherr, Li and Vitanyi. Certainly the Laplace quotation on p6 seems to have suffered an internal deletion.

Anonymous said...

Shallit, I was addressing Harriet, as was completely clear from seeing the word "Harriet" at the start of my comment.

When you point to where Harriet factors specification into her little story, then you can call me a liar and not be incorrect.

Jeffrey Shallit said...


I'm sorry - I didn't realize English is not your native language.

In English, if you write "You see, what cirtic always ignore is the specification" then most people would understand "always" to be a universal applying to all critics, not just Harriet.

Takis Konstantopoulos said...

"That's what makes creationism different from legit science: creationists just pretend that criticism doesn't exist and recycle the same bad arguments over and over."

Precisely. This is one of the dominant characteristics of any kind of religious movement, creationism/intelligent_design (C/I) notwithstanding: the more proof you give to them about their ad hoc convictions, the stronger those convictions become. Since C/I is an offspring of christianity, creationists will "explain" your proofs as something that the devil does to them: he wants them to suffer, whereas their god will endow them with faith to ignore those devilish proofs and arguments.

Anonymous said...

I just read read your paperI had to laugh out loud when dembski forgot to factor in the spaces in his calcultion of the information content of the words alone but not the sentence:"me thinks it is like a weasel".

Takis Konstantopoulos said...

I have a question. There is no doubt that Dembski's theory is bogus. The question is the following: since Dembski claims he is a scientist, and since there are proofs about the flaws of his theory, why does he insist in them? Is he a bullshitter or a liar?

If his motivation is purely religious (which I think it is), then my question has an obvious answer: religious folk need no proofs or rational arguments. They just believe arbitrary things. But if he insists that his motivation is not religious but scientific, then it would be interesting to know whether he is a bullshitter or liar.

Jeffrey Shallit said...


I think it is very hard to be skeptical of one's own work, especially if one's reputation depends on it.

Anonymous said...

"The first principle is that you must not fool yourself - and you are the easiest person to fool."

The pleasure of finding things out: the best short works of Richard P. Feynman
By Richard Phillips Feynman, Jeffrey Robbins

#4 - I'd wonder why no one was born on an odd day of the month.

John Stockwell said...

The whole argument of "specified information" is a red herring. It is not even worth discussing. It is a kind of philosophical flypaper that is intended to trap the unwary in apologetic arguments. We do not "infer design" from such a process of unconstrained induction.

We do not, in fact, "detect design" at all. We model manufacture. We have at our disposal a vast collection of manufactured objects and known manufacturing processes against which we may compare an unknown object.

In the case of a royal flush, note that all card hands are manufactured objects. By invoking probabilistic analysis we are not determining "design" from "chance",
we are attempting to determine the manufacturing process by which a particular hand is obtained.

All patterns of card hands are manufactured, either by random shuffling or by a non random process. At most we are determining the manufacturing process.