Life is Not a Computer: “Information” Inanity in Evolutionary Biology

January 23, 2008

John Wilkins, over at Evolving Thoughts has been making a pretty persuasive case that trying to apply concepts like “information” to biology is mostly a waste of time. In Part One, he covers what the concept of information actually is and why it’s such a clunker when it comes to describing biological systems. In Part Two, he defends a view of biology where information is just an abstract way of modeling things, not a property of those things itself.

Wilkins gets a bit technical, but a key take-away point is that defining exactly what we mean by “information” is extremely tricky: there are several complicated formulations of the concept, and they are generally incompatible with each other. We can’t possibly apply the idea of information to biological systems unless we nail down what we are looking for (most Intelligent Design arguments trip up at this very first step: they never specify what they mean by information in the first place).

Even once we’ve done that it’s still not clear exactly what we should be measuring. What is the information of biology? DNA code seems like an obvious candidate, but its clearly an incomplete one: so much of what biology is and how it works is contextual: it assumes certain things about what’s in the cells (including things that have their own evolving RNA code) and what environment those cells will find themselves in. Nor is DNA the only candidate: there are entire gene pools to consider (where arguably most of the information relevant to evolution is best captured), the functional complexity of an organism (which is not simply an expression DNA code), and so on.

Finally, there’s the problem that information may be the wrong model altogether, missing the subtleties that make biology distinctive from computer science. DNA, for instance, isn’t simply information read and then translated by a program. It’s a physical, tangible, and causal object, and its particular chemical properties and reactions are part of the process, rather than deviations or errors in the sole task of record keeping. Biology, the fantasies of creationists about “random processes” aside, is all about complex chains of causality, and those chains extend backwards from our DNA all the way to the origin of life.  Any meager measure of “information” is going to simply miss all of that.

With all those difficulties in defining and applying the idea of “information” to biology, it’s little wonder that many pseudo-scientists have gotten accustomed to talking about “information” in much the same way they talk about “energy”: as a sort of cipher for whatever unexplained bit of mysticism they happen to be pushing at the moment. Some woo-mesiters have even claimed that energy is information and vice-versa. This guy even cutely claims that Energy is “In-formation.” Get it?

No? Well, good: there’s nothing much there to get. There’s not even a hint of any understanding of information theory or energy in such babbling (other than “lots of really complex stuff!” and “glowing ball of lifepower!”)

And that’s the real problem with “information”-talk: because it’s such a difficult concept to apply to biological processes, the potential for error and confusion are always high. And if even biologists and information theorists aren’t sure what “information” should mean in terms of biology, you can bet that tossing the term out to laypeople is a recipe for intellectual disaster and creationist exploitation.


Professional Sports Scams another City: Seattle Sonics Lie to Peter to Get Handouts from Paul

January 21, 2008

Now here’s an exercise in real guts.

The Seattle Sonics, like most professional sports teams, has always whined and pleaded its way into sweetheart deals, huge tax subsidies, and other perks from his host city. The rationale for this sort of welfare has always been the somewhat dubious: that professional sports draw lots of extra cash into the city. This is, in fact, how current President George Bush found his first and only real business success: convincing taxpayers to give him and his partners millions and millions of dollars of free handouts and shady land grabs to build a stadium for their Texas Rangers, supposedly to revitalize the city of Arlington. Suffice to say, little to no economic benefit ever appeared, and indeed most of the best economic analysis of the issue predicts no or even negative effects on local economies for such scams.

That, however, is not the real outrage here. However dubious the claim that sports teams have substantial impacts on the local economy, owners have always stuck to their guns on the issue, insisting that city taxpayers owe them their paychecks, like it or not, for all they supposedly bring to the city. Except, of course, if that argument inconveniences them.

And that’s how it is that the Sonics are currently arguing in court that they shouldn’t have to fulfill their leased contract with the city of Seattle… because the team up and moving to Oklahoma would have little or no impact on the local economy. That’s the exact opposite of what they claimed when they fleeced Seattle taxpayers to win the heavily subsidized lease in the first place.

But even that’s not quite twisted enough: at the very same time, the team is out in in Oklamhoma demanding that local taxpayers tithe 100 million in cash towards their team…

You’ve got one guess as to how they’re trying to justify that handout.

What Some Actually Good Criticisms of Dawkins and Harris Might Look Like…

January 20, 2008

David Friedman, an “academic economist” (in quotes only because it seems like there’s an interesting story there) has two posts worth reading, one discussing his reactions to Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris and the next his position that it’s really premature to discount all religion as potential insightful or useful, regardless of whether one agrees with any religion or not.

Not saying that I agree with him in every respect, but I respect where we might disagree a lot more than I do with other critics.

Confusing Science Reporting on Claimed Proof of Natural Selection

January 19, 2008

A recent Science Daily article blares: “New Findings Confirm Darwin’s Theory: Evolution Not Random” But while the research looks legitimate, and the findings indeed consistent with evolution via natural selection, the article is deeply confusing, and it looks like we have another example of shoddy science journalism on our hands.

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New Cloning Success Shocks Vatican: Science Slipping Away from their Pat Narrative

January 19, 2008

The Vatican, and likely many other pro-life groups, are up in arms about the latest work in human cloning. Such outrage was expected of course, and spokesman Elio Sgreccia, who heads the Pontifical Academy for Life, even tries to push the latest trendy talking point that such research is “a product of the past” supposedly in light of other breakthroughs with adult lines (which is false, so where are our friends at the National Review to bemoan this scientific dishonesty!?).

But one also gets the feeling that this breakthrough is threatening to the pro-life side in more ways than just to their ethical objections to the use of embryos. In fact, it brings forward a number of serious flaws in those very objections.
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Latest Ben Stein interview for Expelled!: A Cohort of Creationist Canards

January 18, 2008

Ben Stein has been doing various softball promotional interviews for his new creationism film, Expelled!: the latest at CNSNews, a conservative outlet for the right-wing Media Research Center.

The interview is filled with a host of laughable claims. Among other things, Stein says that:

1) evolution doesn’t try to test itself (all the biology journals must be blank pages then!)
2) that its somehow a bad thing for evolution that there is no good definition of species (when this difficulty is exactly what we would expect from an evolutionary family tree)
3) scientists have never observed natural species being originated (wrong both naturally and artificially, no matter how you ultimately choose to define species)
5) neo-darwinism says that things only happen by “random chance” (so wrong that it makes one wonder if Stein has ever cracked a biology textbook)
5) there are no plausible ideas as to how life could have begun aside from a “New Age hypothesis” (Stein can of course hold opinions about plausibility here, where the evidence is inconclusive, but at the very least there are many different hypotheses, and none of them involving any sort of new age magic, but instead all trying to figure out what is plausible with early organic chemistry)

All of these are, of course, classic creationist arguments and myths that have been debunked so many times over that it boggles the mind. Scientists have been answering these same stupid claims over and over for decades, patiently (though increasingly testily) explaining the evidence anew each time (and taking considerable time away from actually doing science)… and Stein actually has the gall to claim that science is too scared to acknowledge or address them?

Then there’s this, from the interviewer summing up what they “learned” from the film:

Stein contends that rigid Darwinists are silencing their critics in academia, which the film explores, and discusses how ID ideas are helping in cancer research and similar work.

No examples of this ID-inspired cancer insights are given, and that is, of course, because there aren’t any (and can’t really be any, since because a creator can do anything, any particular guess as to what it did is just that: a guess, luckily right or luckily wrong, but not a direct implication of the theory itself). The interviewer even mentions ID-star Jonathan Wells’ claim that cells have “tiny turbines” in them that can break down: a claim that barely makes any intelligible sense, much less provides any new insight into cellular functions (which mainstream cell biologist was it, again, that has ever argued that cellular structures could never fail and break down?).

For someone that claims to be into free speech, someone who says he wants to have a debate, Stein seems awfully unwilling to actually confront his critics directly. He’s so far only done softball interviews with politically friendly outlets. His blog posts on the Expelled website have lapsed since October, and he yet to really respond to any substantive criticism of his claims, either on the blog or elsewhere. The blog commenting was, as I expected long ago, basically just a tool for nutpicking: i.e. attracting lots of anonymous critics and then highlighting only the most vicious and claiming that this represents more persecution, or a general lack of rigor in the arguments of critics. That’s not debate: that’s a Public Relations tactic.

And if Stein was so eager to have an open debate, why did he and his production company operate under cover of a phony movie project about a different subject? As I’ve said before, the deception involved is less outrageous for concealing the film’s motive (and thus getting people like Dawkins to agree to be a part of it) than it is for the way it neatly avoided allowing any critics a chance to respond to the actual claims that the movie planned to make (claims of persecution, that Intelligent Design is good science, that saying that cells have “tiny turbines” instead of just things similar to turbines can cure cancer, etc.), instead trolling for scare quotes about atheism.

Stein has continually avoided the central question here: the question of whether Intelligent Design claims really count as workable scientific proposals, and thus whether the scientific cold-shoulder they’ve gotten is actually deserved or not, on the evidential merits. In fact, he even as much admits (contrary to the interviewer’s take on the film) that Intelligent Design doesn’t offer any specific guidance on any practical line of inquiry, which basically gives the whole game away.

He doesn’t even really bother to deny that its essentially creationism that he’s pushing as an alternative. I’m still interested to hear what Intelligent Design advocates (many of whom have praised the film) have to say about that specifically, considering all the work many of them have done to put distance between themselves and nonsense like “no new species.”

Expelled!: The Intelligent Design Flick so Bad They Have to Pay You to See It

January 16, 2008

Reader onein6billion notes that the Intelligent Design flick Expelled! is continuing to ramp up their marketing campaign, this time with an offer to pay “Christian” schools at least 5 dollars or more per ticket if they bus students to theaters.

In speaking with Christian Schools, we’ve found that hosting a school-wide “mandatory” field trip is the best way to maximize your school’s earning potential. Send a field trip home with your middle school and high school students, have each child pay for their own ticket, then collect the stubs at the door once you get to the movie theater. With this model, you also will be able to benefit from the ticket stubs purchased by parents who choose to come as well.

The marketing gurus behind Expelled! seem to be trying to replay their success in promoting Passion of the Christ, but this particular tactic seems cheap and hokey in comparison. Their motive is pretty hard to miss (emphasis added):

Q: Do we have to go to the movie on a particular day to be a part of the fundraising program?

A: Not at all. HOWEVER, it is important for a movie to have a stellar showing at the box office on opening weekend. Therefore, we will only be able to accept stubs submitted within two (2) weeks of the movie releasing in your area.

Important why? For financial reasons, obviously (what movie wouldn’t want the good press of a big opening weekend?), but also, I suspect, because the films’ commercial success (or at least apparent success, even if they have to pay to fill the seats) is a critical talking point for their larger campaign. If the movie duds out, so will the chance to fire up anti-evolutionary activism all around the country.

But what’s really notable here is the way in which the promotional page makes no mystery of which choir this movie is preaching to. The Expelled!’s boilerplate ID rhetoric claims that it’s all about science overlooking evidence for theism, period. But the film’s producers seem to have entirely forgotten about the existence of other theistic or even creationist schools (let alone public schools) when it came time to market the picture. Jewish parochial schools aren’t mentioned in this campaign, nor are Muslim schools, despite both equally believing that the “world was designed by a creator.” It’s an especially bizarre oversight given that their star is Jewish (albeit one that all but worships Christianity as a cultural and political force).

Like much of the rest of this production, this omission seems downright clumsy. Most of the Intelligent Design proponents the movie profiles have worked hard (whether sincerely or no) to try and show that their arguments are valid and scientific, rather than simply a mask for their religious beliefs. Seemingly missing the point of all of that, Expelled! instead wears its religious motives as an unapologetic badge of pride. Expelled! likewise seems to parrot ID’s usual ecumenical rhetoric (“world was designed by a creator”) without understanding that then immediately singling out Christians alone sort of spoils the effect.

Update: Over at the Austringer, a commenter puts two and two together and notices that “mandatory” field trips coupled with “kids must pay for their own tickets” is not exactly a way to win over parents, particularly when those parents find out that the school was getting kickbacks for the shakedown.