Monday, March 15, 2010

Errors in "Conservation of Information in Search"

William A. Dembski is a senior member, and Robert J. Marks II is a fellow, of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). The IEEE Code of Ethics requires members "to see, accept, and offer honest criticism of technical work, to acknowledge and correct errors, and to credit properly the contributions of others."

A correspondent tells me that he has notified Dembski and Marks of obvious mathematical errors in Conservation of Information in Search: Measuring the Cost of Success. The errors are identified and explained here.

My opinion, as a senior member of the IEEE, is that it is unethical for Dembski and Marks to continue disseminating the article online without correcting its known errors. Some researchers, including me, emend online versions of their publications by adding footnotes. I do not know why Dembski and Marks would not follow suit. Of course, they must "credit properly" the source of the corrections.

Section III.E of the article begins, "Partitioned search [12] is a 'divide and conquer' procedure. . . ." The combination of emphasis and citation falsely indicates that the term "partitioned search" comes from [12], Richard Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker (TBW). Furthermore, categorical attribution of the procedure itself to Dawkins is unwarranted.

TBW describes a program that models an aspect of biological evolution (pp. 47-48). The program searches for a target phrase by iteratively "'breeding' ... mutant 'progeny'" from a parent phrase. The parent of the next generation is the progeny that "most resembles the target." Partitioned search would require additional information as to where the parent matches the target, along with exemption of matching characters from "mutation" in "breeding." There is no mention in TBW of these necessary elements of partitioned search.

The following now appears on the anonymously authored WeaselWare page of the website for Marks' Evolutionary Informatics Lab:
In an Evolutionary Search such as the one proposed by Dr. Dawkins [in TBW]*....
The footnote reads,
* Dr. Dawkins no longer possesses the original source code for his algorithm. Feeback and reflection have led the authors to conclude that an Evolutionary Search is the more likely interpretation for the type of search presented in TBW. Although Partitioned Search was the original interpretation, we have now expanded our analysis to include Evolutionary Strategies, thus covering all reasonable interpretations.
I'm calling on Dembski and Marks to acknowledge in the online version of the article that the term partitioned search does not appear in TBW, and that they "probably" interpreted TBW incorrectly.

Dembski and Marks should not dodge responsibility for the misinterpretation. As a computer scientist, I find the phrase "Dawkins no longer possesses the original source code for his algorithm" utterly bizarre. One starts with an algorithm, selects a programming language, and then expresses the algorithm in the particular programming language to obtain "source code." Dawkins need not have source code to tell us his algorithm. Dembski publicized a communication with Dawkins immediately after the publication of the article. Clearly he could have contacted Dawkins to ask about the algorithm while writing the article. If he doubted that the algorithm produced the results shown in TBW, all he had to do was implement the algorithm and check to see if worked as advertised.

Please join me in asking Dembski and Marks (their email addresses are at the bottom of the first page of the article) to fulfill their obligations under the IEEE Code of Ethics. Feel free to link to this text, which appears both at my blog, Bounded Science, and on the Sidewiki here at the website of the Evolutionary Informatics Lab.


  1. I emailed this to Dembski and Marks:

    Dear Bill and Bob:

    As a member of the IEEE, I'm calling on you to comply with the IEEE Code of Ethics, and correct the errors in the online version of your TSMC-A article. For more on this matter, see


    Tom English

    I will not violate Dembski's copyrights by posting his entire response. He begins by expressing admiration for my "high moral standards," and goes on to indicate that he and Marks will make what corrections they believe are needed. Then he writes,

    By the way, how many other members of the IEEE have you openly charged with ethics violations? Just the two us? That would be a coincidence.

    First, I have not charged Dembski and Marks with ethics violations. I have stated my opinion of their conduct, and have alerted them to what I believe are their ethical obligations.

    Second, I read the Riot Act to a certain researcher during a paper session at an IEEE Congress on Evolutionary Computation, perhaps ten years ago. He was pushing schema theorems for genetic programming, no matter that he'd been informed of cut-and-dried errors in his arguments for them. I'm omitting his name now because he's gone on to do respectable work.

  2. Thanks for all the effort you put into this work! BTW: in their new paper Efficient Per Query Information Extraction shows, they do the Markov chain analysis you have made earlier (and me too). But they don't work with the effective rate of mutation. Two days ago, I asked them about it (on their blog, in an email, and in an article on rationalwiki), but I didn't get an answer, yet.

  3. Your critique of D&M's calcs are the core and beauty of science: professional peer review. Before I publish something I first have a guy like you review it for exactly this reason. The point is to get the physics right; nothing else! Regards, Jim Cliborn

  4. Jim, the close scrutiny of the calculations is due to DiEb, who commented just before you did. I do not have the patience for it, taking as many exceptions as I do to the overall approach of Dembski and Marks.