To Calculate or Not to Calculate, That is the Question-Begging

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Whether one may be attempting to apply William A. Dembski's "explanatory filter/design inference" (EF/DI) to an event to find rarefied design (see Wilkins and Elsberry 2001), or "specified anti-information" (SAI) to make an ordinary design inference (see Elsberry and Shallit 2003), you are likely to be in need of a calculating aid that can handle both very large and very small numbers. I have such a tool available online, the Finite Improbability Calculator. In addition to pointing to this (IMO) valuable resource, I also want to take up a couple of issues from Dembski's new book, The Design Revolution: Answering the Toughest Questions About Intelligent Design concerning question-begging and the proffered support for the claim that the "specified complexity" identified by use of Dembski's EF/DI is a "reliable" empirical marker of "intelligent design".

Paul King made a perspicacious comment in response to my earlier post, You Missed a Spot, Dr. Dembski. Consider Dembski's stance on biological examples of specified complexity being ruled out of order by critics:

Since the design of biological systems is precisely the question at issue, to argue that we have no experience observing the designs of an unembodied designer is mere question-begging.
(From TDR, p.284.)

It doesn't seem to dawn on Dembski that biologists see another form of question-begging in his work. Dembski offers an inductive argument that specific complexity is a reliable marker of design:

How can we see that specified complexity is a reliable criterion for detecting design? In other words, how can we see that the complexity-specification criterion successfully avoids false positives? The justification for this claim is a straightforward inductive generalization: in every instance where specified complexity is present and where the underlying causal story is known (i.e., where we are not just dealing with circumstantial evidence, but where, as it were, the video camera is running and any putative designer would be caught red-handed), it turns out design is present as well. This is true even where the person running the filter isn't privy to the firsthand information. That's a bold and fundamental claim, so I'll restate it: Where direct, empirical corroboration is possible, design actually is present whenever specified complexity is present.
(From TDR, pp.95-96.)

I agree with Dembski that this is a bold claim, but I will disagree on why. You see, it is easy to enumerate the cases that form the foundation of this particular "inductive generalization". That's because the EF/DI that Dembski has urged his critics for years to use and "do the calculation" has had exactly four (4) published instances where any part of the calculations Dembski outlines as needed for a "design inference" in either "The Design Inference" or "No Free Lunch" are actually provided for inspection. These are:

1) The Caputo case

2) Dawkins's "weasel" program example

3) The Contact SETI primes sequence

4) The flagellum of E. coli bacteria

That's the complete list of published examples (see Elsberry and Shallit 2003). A panda doesn't need all the digits of one paw to count them. They are all Dembski's work. No one else has published an example of the full, "rigorous" application of the EF/DI to any event whatsoever.

Here's a relevant question: do any of the above examples fulfill Dembski's criteria for the kinds of design inferences that found his "inductive generalization"?

1) The Caputo case, though founded on a true story, is based upon a fictional representation of the pattern of picks of candidates. This example fails the "circumstantial evidence" criterion Dembski gives above. Further, Dembski's analysis reveals that the improbability that the pattern would occur by chance is small and specified, it nonetheless does not fall below Dembski's "universal probability bound", and thus by his criteria given in TDR cannot be counted as an example of specified complexity.

2) Dembski's analysis of Dawkins's "weasel" program from The Blind Watchmaker at least targets a real-world example that is not based on circumstantial evidence. Again, Dembski finds a small probability, specified pattern, but one which does not fall below his "universal probability bound", and by his own usage in TDR, can't be held as an example of specified complexity. (Of course, I disagree with Dembski ruling out examples of specified complexity based on the "universal probability bound". Demsbki hasn't yet retracted the procedure for justifying a "local small probability" given in "The Design Inference", so that's still in play.)

3) The Contact primes sequence examined by Dembski fails spectacularly in several ways. First, it's a fictional scenario. Second, SETI researchers aren't even using the sort of analysis Dembski claims they are. Third, for the pattern of 1's and 0's that one finds actually printed in "No Free Lunch" that forms the basis of Dembski's calculation, Dembski provides a non-matching specification. (See Elsberry and Shallit 2003, pp. 21-25 for a complete explication.)

4) The flagellum of E. coli bacteria. This case fails to provide a specification in the technical sense Dembski develops in TDI and NFL. It fails to evaluate any evolutionary hypothesis at all. And, there is no way to claim that it is known that this is due to a designer in the "video camera" certainty sense Dembski specifies above.

That's it. There are exactly zero (0, zilch, zip, nada) published examples that form the foundation of Dembski's "inductive generalization". Jokes can be made about doing linear regression on two data points, but even that is two data points more than Dembski has provided.

I, for one, find an "inductive generalization" with no basis relatively unconvincing. But Dembski doesn't seem to be troubled by this, or understand why biologists see his statements as more reasonably conforming to what is termed "question-begging". (Just to be clear, I think Dembski's "inductive generalization" argument is trash, no matter how many examples he might "calculate" in the future. See below.) Witness this passage:

What about the positive evidence for design? As it turns out, biology is chock-full of specified complexity. And since specified complexity is a reliable empirical marker of actual design, that means biology is chock-full of evidence for design.
(From TDR, p.283.)

I think that future editions of encyclopedias illustrating "begging the question" should seriously consider Dembski's conjoint claims on how the reliability of "specified complexity" is established and his pushing of use of biological examples (of which he has "calculated", incompletely, precisely one (1)) to show "positive evidence for design" as the premier case study.

Eager young design advocates might be waiting to pounce, though. "Wesley! What's your problem with inductive generalization! You urge an inductive approach to making ordinary design inferences yourself, you hypocrite!" Please, forebear. Dembski's usage is invalid for the simple reason given in my previous post: no number of examples of "known to be caused by design" events can possibly put Dembski's EF/DI procedure at risk. It will either classify these examples correctly as "designed" or yield a "false negative" of "not designed", and Dembski stipulates already that false negative performance of the EF/DI is not an issue. The only class of events that Dembski should be concerned about collecting, calculating, and publishing would be examples where Dembski is willing to stipulate, in advance, that the evidence for the event not being due to design is sufficient. Those are the only sorts of events that could test the "reliability" of the EF/DI. And they also happen to be the class of events that Dembski has studiously avoided going anywhere near. One wonders why.

This leaves me with one further observation, which is that Dembski's EF/DI appears to be a procedure with what would be called an enormous "public burden". As noted above, in the almost eight years since Dembski was writing up his dissertation, he has published exactly four (4) attempts (based on fiction, incomplete, or not yielding an example of specified complexity in the end) to actually calculate, in the manner he himself prescribes to others, the EF/DI's apparatus of inferring design. In that same time, he has authored books: TDI, ID, NFL, TDR. He has edited books, at least five such volumes. An "inductive generalization" from this relatively copious data set leads to an ineluctable conclusion: it is easier to write or edit a book than to actually apply the full-blown EF/DI to any actual real-world phenomenon. Dembski said it best, I think: the EF/DI "resists detailed application to real-world problems". Of course, Dembski's comment was about Murray Gell-Mann's work rather than his own, but it seems apropos.

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As some of you may have noticed, I really stepped in it in the comments section over at The Panda's Thumb during their first week in operation. It was an innocent mistake on my part, I assure you, though everything... Read More

14 Comments

Atheism, keep in mind, is a religion too, unless explicitly identified as a tentative hypothesis (as Laplace, for example, was kind enough to do). I can’t help but get the feeling that at least a few of the more committed contributors to this site are members of that faith. It is an old and honorable faith, and I do not condemn anyone for belonging to it (as did my mother for instance) – but honesty requires that they should put their cards on the table.

It is important to admit that, in the final analysis, a humble agnosticism is the only genuinely unbiased position to take on all questions of science vs. religion. I know it goes against the grain, but still …

Luke-

Yes, some of the contributors are atheists. Some of them are not. One’s advocacy of evolutionary theory has no bearing on whether one believes in God or not. Nor did Wesley’s post have anything whatsoever to do with the question of whether God exists, it dealt with the validity of Dembski’s statistical arguments and the inferences he draws from them.

The notion that “honesty requires that they put their cards on the table” is nonsensical. Would Wesley’s arguments be any more or less true if he was an atheist? How about if he was a theist? Or a pantheist? The answer is obviously no.

The “barking up the wrong tree” comment…

I have put my cards on the table. See my essay on Viewpoints on Evolution, Creation, and Origins. I’m a theist, a member of the United Methodist Church.

I’ve also explained why I got involved in critiquing antievolution. It has a lot to do with countering misinformation because of the respect for honesty I got being raised as a Christian in the south.

Many of my fellow contributors here at the Panda’s Thumb are, I’m sure, atheists. Some of them I’ve known for a long time, and would unhesitatingly vouch for their character. And, in general, I think that the people pushing antievolution genuinely believe what they are saying, though sometimes it does get a bit hard to credit.

Dembski’s “inductive” argument for the reliability of the filter goes back to tDI - and it is not explained there. Obviously it does not refer to formal applications of the Explanatory Filter. I have come to the conclusion that it probably refers to informal inferences of design, and that Dembski means that false positives in these cases may be attributed to a lack of information or from not properly applying the filter.

This is all very well in a purely theoretical situation. However, in practice we have to take into account the possiblity that our CSI-detection might also produce false positives and if Dembski wishes to say that his method is reliable then that issue must be addressed.

In the case of the E. coli flagellum the existence of an explanation - even one lacking in detail - is sufficient to call the identification of the flagellum as CSI into doubt.

As coauthor with Wes on the “rarified design” paper, allow me to note that he is a theist, whiel I am an agnostic. Neither of us are atheists, and yet we still find the EF unsatisfying. Imagnine that!

Re the atheists issue: it should be noted (again) that this site was not created to trash creationism or religion but rather as a resource for responding to the attempts of conservative Christians (and other members of the so-called Religious Right) to foist their religious beliefs on public schoolchildren at the expense of a decent science education.

The presence of inordinate numbers of atheists on this site (if indeed that is the case) would merely reflect the fact that atheists are more likely to resist having Old Testament precepts forced on them and their children than religious persons.

To the managers of Panda’s Thumb:

For some reason, my post above was censored, with no hint to readers of what was removed – namely, a personal anecdote which illustrates the kind of scientific open-mindedness that seems necessary regarding the presentation of evolution in the public schools. As I made clear, I have no axe to grind – I see no evidence for intelligent design in evolution – but this issue is too important to ignore. Besides, it will make your battle with the ID people a lot more effective. Unless my comment is restored, I will be posting an account of what happened over at GNXP, a site that no one has accused of being biased on this or any other controversial issue.

Luke-

I just received the text of your e-mail to Jack Krebs and you’re right, the anecdote about the size of the genome was in there at the beginning, I remember it. But I didn’t remove it and as far as I know, the only other person that could have removed it was Wes. I checked the activity log and I don’t see any indication that a change was made. Wes is on the west coast and it may be a few hours before we get his reply.

In the meantime, you have my apologies. It is not our policy to edit comments unless they are spam or really, really deserve it (which is admittedly subject). We certainly would not edit a comment for a substantive disagreement. I suspect that there has been some sort of glitch in the software while rebuilding files. If you can recall exactly what you wrote, I will gladly restore it where it belongs.

I certainly didn’t make any such change to Luke’s comment.

The solution seems simple: Luke, why don’t you give the anecdote in another comment?

I have a long history in the online discussion of evolution/creation issues. I used to operate a FidoNet BBS, and I hosted a lot of files, both pro-science and antievolution. I think that the public benefits by seeing as much as possible of what even those whose stances I oppose say.

I have to say that I do NOT recall the personal anecdote that Luke says originally graced his comment. Given that Luke’s accusation of atheism seemed to be pointed at me personally, I would rate it that I’d be likely to remember. As far as I can tell by my recall, nothing has changed. Ah, but perhaps there is physical evidence…

According the to SQL database entry, which has a field for modification time, Luke’s comment has NOT been modified since entry. I think I’ll go with the physical evidence here.

I don’t like unfounded accusations sent my way, whether it’s atheism or censorship. Luke’s apology will be appreciated.

A little further look in the SQL database reveals that Luke Lea did leave an anecdote about genomes in a comment. But it IS NOT in this thread, and it is still around. My recall is confirmed.

Anytime, Luke…

OK, I found where Luke Lea gave the anecdote that he is talking about: http://www.pandasthumb.org/cgi-bin/[…]?entry_id=27.

It’s a completely different thread, for pity’s sakes.

People with weak memories should be slow to accuse other people of censorship.

The post at the top of this comment section was edited by someone, who pasted it there. It wasn’t me I promise. It seems evident that it was taken from the complete version of the comment I did actually post on a neighboring thread (on Brain Vaccinations), and I apologize for not spotting this immediately. I also agree that my remarks are a lot more germane to this topic than the other one – or rather would have been, if the most relevant part had not disappeared.

Look, guys, this could easily have been the result of a technical snafu, or just carelessness, and I have no wish to accuse anybody of deliberate bad faith – not after seeing your readiness to respond to my complaint. Stuff happens, especially in the fast-paced blog world. I’d be happy if you would just address the point I was trying to raise.

Thanks, and good luck in the future.

Luke Lea

Luke wrote:

The post at the top of this comment section was edited by someone, who pasted it there. It wasn’t me I promise. It seems evident that it was taken from the complete version of the comment I did actually post on a neighboring thread (on Brain Vaccinations), and I apologize for not spotting this immediately.

Okay Luke, let’s play this game. The comment you left on the Brain Vaccinations post was as follows:

I’m new to this site, whose existence was just brought to my attention by razib over at Gene Expression. I have no axe to grind in this debate –e.g., see no biological evidence do date for intelligent design – but as a hick in the woods of Tennessee, I must say I am bothered by the aggressive stance taken by many biologists concerning the teaching of evolution in the public schools. In particular, a dogmatic insistence that chance alone accounts for the variations arising in biological organisms, on which selection acts, strikes me as both unneccesary and incompatible with your stated mission of maintaining the integrity of science. A personal anecdote will illustrate what I mean. A few years ago, when I became aware of the several million base pairs in the average genome, it occurred to me that there might not have been enough time for so much information to have become fixed by chance alone, in combination with the process of natural selection. After all, I reasoned,with four letters in the alphabet, there are 4 raised to the billionth power of different possibilities to be dealt with, which is a trans-astronomical number if ever there was one. Now, when I began to research this question, I found some help from biologists on the web – the idea that much of the genome was meaningless junk, and the “step-wise” character of the selection process were both very helpful. With further searching I found a site (maintained by an amateur if I recall) who took the trouble to go through the math on the probabilities involved, to show that there was enough time to evolve a protein with a meaningful string of approximately 135 amino-acids, which, if I recall, was the size of the typical protein (I may not have this exactly right). However, it was only after I delved further – at this point I was strictly on my own – that I came to the realization that, in a large population of interbreeding individuals, every protein in the organism is subject to simultaneous and, as it were, parallel evolution. It was only then that I realized the problem was solved, at least to my satisfaction. There are a couple of important lessons here, I think. By keeping the question open – and letting (or showing) students how to find out whether or not there has been enough time for chance alone to explain the complexity of life –we not only undertake a useful exercise, but we are at the same time honoring the tentative nature of the scientific enterprise. Notice, btw, that to this day physicists are prepared to entertain, on occassion, alternative hypotheses respecting even the most fundamental and best established of the laws of physics, concerning gravity especially, but also the other fundamental forces. Shouldn’t the biological theory of evolution be handled in the same spirit? One final note. Not to take an open-minded approach to these questions amounts, if you are not careful, to an attempt to ram a materialist world view down the throats of children, which is not an appropriate thing to do in the public schools, and probably violates the consitiution. I hope you will be able to see that there is some merit in what I am trying to say.

This was at around 6 am Thursday morning and was entered from the IP address 68.59.234.235. Then about 3 hours later, you posted this comment to this post on “To Calculate or not to Calculate”:

Atheism, keep in mind, is a religion too, unless explicitly identified as a tentative hypothesis (as Laplace, for example, was kind enough to do). I can’t help but get the feeling that at least a few of the more committed contributors to this site are members of that faith. It is an old and honorable faith, and I do not condemn anyone for belonging to it (as did my mother for instance) – but honesty requires that they should put their cards on the table. It is important to admit that, in the final analysis, a humble agnosticism is the only genuinely unbiased position to take on all questions of science vs. religion. I know it goes against the grain, but still …

This comment also came from IP address 68.59.234.235. Then you were back yesterday morning accusing us of censoring your comment and threatening to expose our conniving little game to the world over at GNXP. And now you’re back claiming that someone else posted this comment and not you, and that it’s somehow “evident” to you that it was “taken from the complete version” of the longer comment you left on the Brain Vaccinations post. But those two posts aren’t remotely similar. The longer one didn’t mention Laplace, or your mother, or agnosticism. They are two entirely different comments, one is clearly not a shorter version of the other that was cut and pasted here, as you’re now claiming. And all of the comments you’ve left have been from the same IP address.

Look, guys, this could easily have been the result of a technical snafu, or just carelessness, and I have no wish to accuse anybody of deliberate bad faith – not after seeing your readiness to respond to my complaint. Stuff happens, especially in the fast-paced blog world.

This was not the result of a technical snafu, nor was it the result of carelessness on the part of anyone here. It seems to be the result of you not having any idea what you’ve posted here and thereafter accusing others of dishonesty - first the administrators of this blog and then some anonymous person who somehow managed to cut and paste entirely different words from another comment you left, and did so on your own computer. Which means there are really only two possibilities for you. You either need to call a priest to perform an exorcism to get the demons out of your computer who are going around the internet making you look foolish…or you need to lay off the tequila.

Ed Brayton:

I’m reading both of these comments closely together now, and have to admit that it appears there has been a major lapse of memory on my part – as I have absolutely no recollection of making two separate posts. (A senior moment, perhaps? I am getting on.) I would therefore like to take this opportunity to sincerely apologize to everybody at Panda’s Thumb, for falsely accusing anyone there of censorship. And now, if you will excuse me, I need to go eat some humble pie.

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This page contains a single entry by Wesley R. Elsberry published on March 25, 2004 7:58 AM.

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