Category Archives: Dembski

Creationists prefer numerology to real scientific research

Ian Wishart is a local “investigative’ journalist and well-known conspiracy theorist from way back. He’s dabbled in climate change, creationism, health, political, crime, and other issues. He’s a firm creationist and so it’s no surprise he has picked up on a recently published paper Scientists dumbstruck: signs of intelligent design in DNA code. No surprise because it’s currently being promoted by creationists and the Discovery Institute as some sort of proof of intelligent design. And Wishart is part of that echo chamber.

The paper itself is extremely dense – probably only fully intelligible to computational biologists and similar specialists. Fortunately, local science blogger Grant Jacobs, who has skills in this area,  has been through the paper and explains it in an article that is accessible to most people – see Investigate magazine struck dumb by numerology of genetic code. Have a read, you can see what the paper really says, what the problems are with it and make up your own mind about the degree to which Ian Wishart, and other creationists, have been fooled by it.

“Design inference” and “reinterpretation research”

I think there is a bit of a lesson here. Grant describes a basic problem with the paper.

“it rests on a false comparison of two options:

  1. Created by random chance
  2. Created by space aliens

This is set up so that if the first is unlikely, the second “must” be right.

The setting is rigged because these two aren’t all the possibilities. There is at least one more:

  1. Created by a non-random natural process (e.g. evolved)

To declare any one the ‘preferred’ choice they’d have to investigate all three possibilities, then compare what was found. But they don’t: they only look at the first then declare the second as the ‘winner’ without ever looking at the third.”

Anyone who has followed the so-called research carried out by intelligent design proponents may recognise this pattern. Discovery Institute senior fellow William A. Dembski even formulates the pattern as a basic way of detecting intelligent design. Creationists often call it the Design Filter. (He describes it in his book  The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance through Small Probabilities).

Usually the “design inference” boils down to:

  1. Reject chance – easy to set up statistics to show probabilities are extremely low. (For example, the chance of all atoms randomly combining to form a molecule of DNA at one instant is remote);
  2. Analyse any existing scientific explanation or mechanism to show it is wrong. (Easy to do by misrepresentation, choosing old research, ignoring alternatives, etc.);
  3. Accept design as the only, default, alternative. Therefore claim design has been “proved.”

Now, combine that approach with the other leg of intelligent design research – reinterpretation research.” This has extremely low overheads as it only involves taking published work, rubbishing it by misinterpretation, etc., and inventing a different interpretation of the facts to “prove” design.

In essence this is what all intelligent design “research” boils down to. At best it can only find possible problems in current understanding (which is surely the purpose of all research). It cannot support an alternative hypothesis.

So you can see the basic character of all the intelligent design publications they claim. Work which investigates possible problems with existing ideas in evolutionary science without offering, or even considering,  alternative hypotheses. Plenty of that around – put it on the list.

But they ignore the normal honest research approach. They never advance a structured hypothesis, one that is consistent with intelligent design. They therefore never submit such hypothesis to any testing or validation.

Yet they want to claim their ideas as science – and want to teach it to children in science classes!

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Theistic science? No such thing

I came across this interesting observation in Elaine  Howard Eckland’s book  Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think:

“believers did not consider their traditions and beliefs influential on how they conducted their research. None of the religious scientists I talked to supported the theory of intelligent design”

This conclusion is based on her extensive survey of academic scientists in the USA.

It’s interesting because it confirms that those theologians and “philosophers of religion” who advocate abandonment of “materialism” or “naturalism” by scientists are barking up the wrong tree. Even scientists who have strong god beliefs don’t allow these to interfere with the way they do their science. In fact, if they did they would no longer be doing science.

Mind you, the conclusion is not at all surprising to anyone working in a scientific environment. We know from experience that religious scientists don’t change their methodology because of their ideological beliefs or world view.

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A philosopher’s Christmas present

Here’s something for readers interested in the philosophy of science. A special issue of the journal Synthese with a collection of papers discussing evolutionary science and the opposition to it.

And the Christmas present? These papers are freely accessible and pdf forms downloadable up until the end of December. ( Important point for those of us who aren’t institutionalised).

Worth downloading and to read over the holidays. And if you get an eReader as a present this will give you plenty to start with – more than 220 pages.

The papers can be accessed an downloaded at Synthese, Volume 178, Number 2.

The journal Synthese covers topics of Epistemology, Methodology and Philosophy of Science.

Content of special issue:


Introduction: Glenn Branch
Can’t philosophers tell the difference between science and religion?: Demarcation revisited: Robert T. Pennock
Are creationists rational?: John S. Wilkins
Foiling the Black Knight: Kelly C. Smith
Information theory, evolutionary computation, and Dembski’s “complex specified information”: Wesley Elsberry and Jeffrey Shallit
Design and its discontents: Bruce H. Weber
The science question in intelligent design: Sahotra Sarkar
Intelligent design in theological perspective: Niall Shanks and Keith Green
The non-epistemology of intelligent design: its implications for public policy: Barbara Forrest
Evolution and atheism: Has Griffin reconciled science and religion?: James H. Fetzer

Free access to this journal on SpringerLink now through Dec. 31, 2010

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The Hitchens – Dembski debate

I am not a fan of debates. They are more a sport than a mode of informing. And of course each side in a debate has its own fans who are more concerned with “who won” than what they learned.

But a recommend this debate between Christopher Hitchens and Bill Dembski, although I have yet to watch it to the end. I make this exception basically for two reasons.

1: Like many people I admire Hitchens. He is a skilled debater which means he may produce more heat than light. It also means he is a bit of a “street fighter.” I don’t think he is necessarily reliable on scientific questions. But his literary skills are impressive. So he can be enjoyable to lsiten to for his turn of phrase alone.

But I also think he is courageous. He was diagnosed with esophageal cancer earlier this year and has been undergoing treatment, particularly chemotherapy. He is also very conscious and candid about what this means for his future prospects.

A close member of my family experienced a similar situation this year so I am very conscious of the debilitating effect of chemotherapy as well as the natural response to what the illness means for life prospects. It takes a lot of courage for such a patient to continue struggling with the ordinary mundane frustrations of life, let alone to accept the sort of challenges Hitchens is doing.

2: In my recent review So you want a conversation? (of  the book Against All Gods by Phillip Johnson and John Mark Reynolds) I suggested that the “militant” theists and intelligent design proponents who wanted to debate scientists and “new atheists” should take the initiative and organise their own.  They have been vocal with demands for their inclusion in scientific and academic forums. At the same time they conveyed a one-sided, pro-theist, version of science and atheism to their own people. So, I suggested:

“Why don’t these ‘militant’ theists get some of these new atheists along to their own meetings and begin the real discussion. It’s just possible the members of those churches and departments will learn something form the “horses mouth” the seminars and theological courses devoted to new atheist strawmannery don’t convey.”

So this debate, organised by the Prestonwood Christian Academy, in Texas, was a step in that direction.The invitation was not exactly completely open (have a look at the 44 page discussion guide for the debate). This was aimed at students of the academy, their parents and members of the church, hoping to provide some sort of immunity to what Hitchens might say. Prominent on page 1 was the biblical advise:

The fool says in his heart, “There is no god.” Psalm 14:1

Now, I wonder of the Bible Colleges, Churches, and religious groups in New Zealand who regularly study their particular “new atheist” straw man, or creation science script would be p[prepared to make a similar invitation to a speaker for atheism or scientific reason?

The You Tube videos of the debate, which was entitled “Does A Good God Exist?”, are given below. Be aware that the first 9 minutes, being part of the immunisation process, can be ignored.

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Pseudoscience and anti-science nonsense

Book Review: Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk by Massimo Pigliucci

Paperback: 336 pages
US$13.60; NZ$41.99
University Of Chicago Press (May 15, 2010)
SBN-10: 0226667863

The “climategate” fiasco revealed an undercurrent of anti-scientific thinking in our society.  But that is just the latest issue. We have continuing problems with creationism, “alternative” medicines, and so on. Several centuries after the scientific revolution pseudoscience and anti-science attitudes are still common. The struggle for scientific literacy continues.

Massimo Pugliucci stresses this is an important issue for citizens in today’s society:

“Given the power and influence that science increasingly has in our daily lives, it is important that we as citizens of an open and democratic society learn to separate good science from bunk.

This is not a matter of intellectual curiosity, as it affects where large portions of our tax money go, and in some cases even whether people’s lives are lost as a result of nonsense.”

So, here is the motive for Pugliucici’s new book “Nonsense on Stilts.” In this he makes the case for real science, warns against the dangers of pseudoscience and provides readers with help in distinguishing the two.

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Are religious scientists worried about their brethren?

There were two public statements on science recently which seem to have disappeared into a vacuum. They were the ‘Public Statement Concerning Science and Christian Faith’ by New Zealand Religious Scientists and ‘A message to the Christian communities of New Zealand from scientists in their midst.’

I am not interested in the first statement. It’s basically a sour-grapes response to the recent visit of Richard Dawkins to New Zealand. I would think that those disagreeing with Dawkins’ religious views would attempt to ignore him. After all, he was on a promotion tour for his book The Greatest show on Earthwhich is not about religion. Bringing up the religion question only provides him a platform to pontificate on the subject. Mind you, these sorts of criticisms do help build the public interest in Dawkins’ lectures, which are always crowded. This, and the inevitable book sales, must be a good thing for the public understanding of science. So, in a sense, I am all for such irrelevant statements.

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The rules of science

pz_myersPZ Myers has a great post Ten Questions to Ask Your Biology Teacher About Intelligent Design. It briefly discusses, and disposes of, some of the most common intelligent design (ID) arguments. And does it so clearly.

He is a great writer – and I just don’t know how gets time to write so well and do all the other things he does. His upcoming book should be great – but I have yet to hear of any publication date.

I have extracted question 3 because I think this is of general interest. And one I think is important to counter. The question  and accompanying argument is taken from a Christian Apologetics article by William Dembski and Sean McDowell.

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Theistic evolution?

This term gets used a lot – but what does it mean?

In a recent discussion a local supporter (I think) of theistic evolution put it this way: Both “theistic evolutionists” and “atheistic evolutionists” accepts Darwinian evolution as true. Nevertheless – he describes these as two alternatives “theories.” But he admits: “the empirical evidence . . .  will not provide reasons for one position over another. The two positions have to be decided then on other grounds.”

I think this person, and probably most other people who use the “theistic evolution,” label are confused. They are not talking about scientific theories. They are talking about their own religious beliefs. These “other grounds” are religion.

All these people are saying is: “I accept evolutionary science but I am still a theist.”

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“Knowledge” from ignorance

Recently, I came across the very relevant statement in a paper I was reading:

“Ignorance cannot support a knowledge claim of any sort except perhaps for the trivial claim that we simply do not know.”

I think this is something we should keep in the front of our minds when we consider those creationist and religious apologetics arguments justifying anti-science positions. You know, Bill Dembski‘s “design filter” – “if we cant show something is caused by chance, or by laws of nature, then it must be intelligently designed.” Or Michael Behe‘s irreducible complexityargument. Or the “cosmological” argument, the “fine tuning” argument, etc., etc.

If we don’t have evidence we should be happy to say: “I don’t know.” And, ideally follow that with: “Let’s find out.”

To use lack of information to support a knowledge claim is just not logical.

By the way – the paper is by Carol E. Cleland & Shelley Copley (2005). “The Possibility of Alternative Microbial Life on Earth,” International Journal of Astrobiology 4, pp. 165-173. It discusses the possibility that life may have originated on earth more than once and these forms may be basically different. Peter Ward, in his book Life as We Do Not Know It also discusses this possibility.

It’s intriguing. Maybe we will discover “alien” life on earth before we discover extra-terrestrial life.


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Belief not the same as truth

Going through some of notes (scraps of paper all over the place) I came across these jottings:

“To believe in something because it’s true does not come naturally to people.”


“Subordination of belief to what is true is not natural to people.”

Perhaps you recognise this problem?

I think I noted them down while reading Dan Agin’s book: Junk Science recently.  It’s a great book (although I think he is a bit hard on evolutionary psychology). I certainly ended up feeling very angry with the huge negative influence anti-science groups and beliefs have on humanity.


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