Thursday, September 25, 2014

Response to Denyse O’Leary at Salvo

I received a tip that my name had been “taken in vain” by Denyse O’Leary. Unfortunately, the context is one in which I am more doglike than godlike: “The Law of Conservation of Information.”

Dembski did not invent the underlying idea of conservation of information. Biologist Peter Medawar (1980s) and computer scientist Tom English (1996) advanced the view that information is not created from scratch but rather is redistributed from existing sources. Robert Marks II and his students at Baylor University in Texas have developed the idea in terms of search, and their approach has profound consequences for plausible ideas of how evolution occurs, especially when vast claims are made for WEASEL and other evolution computer programs. As we will see in Part II, they are smuggling in information in order to arrive at their target.
I’ve come to understand a fair amount of the psychology of creationists. But I remain mystified by their proclivity to hold forth on anything and everything that comes along. What I’ve learned from my errors is that I’m qualified to speak authoritatively on precious few matters. And even on those, I have to be exceedingly careful. Denyse has had her head handed to her various times at Uncommon Descent, when she’s ventured into the simplest of math. Is she un­em­bar­rassed, or undeterred by embarrassment? Similarly, when she apes the rhetoric of the likes of Demkski and Meyer, where does the unconscious lying to herself end, and the conscious lying to her readers begin?

Ms. O’Leary, my 1996 formulation of "search" was needlessly complicated. With simplification, search is clearly a process of sampling a set of alternatives (which Dembski and Marks refer to as the sample space). To my huge embarrassment, conservation of information turns out to be nothing but obfuscation of statistical independence — a concept that undergraduates encounter early in introductory courses on probability and statistics. There can be no conservation of information in random selection of a sample because there is no information whatsoever. It is absurd to speak of conserving what does not exist.

If samplers have no information about the samples they draw, then how do we account for the fact that sampler (search) A is more likely than sampler B to select a sample that includes at least one element of the target (to hit the target)? There is not the least mystery here. Samplers differ in their biases. That is the gist of why I was wrong to indicate in 1996 that information somehow resides in samplers, and why Dembski and Marks are wrong to do so today.

The following includes a technical correction of my own errors, but ends with exposition that should make sense to everyone who is able to follow you:

The errors of Dembski and Marks apparently derive from a misunderstanding of the "no free lunch" theorem for search. The following links to an interview in which Marks attempts to explain the theorem in layperson's terms, and provides an accessible discussion of how he goes awry:

P.S.—Note that much of the misunderstanding is attributable to misnaming. I know that Ms. O’Leary appreciates the powerful impact of language upon thought. If you refer to the process of sample selection as search, designate a particular subset of the sample space as the target, and say that the selection process hits the target when the sample includes an element of the subset, then you will have a very hard time thinking straight about sampling.


  1. FYI:

  2. Its a Pyrrhic victory you can warm your heart with.

    If you prove DEM wrong, you prove them right.

    NS, at the end of the day maintains life. It doesnt build it.

    Totally compatible with ID.

    DEM have simply had to go all out to drag you (et al) back to sensability.

    Whatever it has taken, it is working. Your side is reduced to claiming they are playing ball in the wrong park.

    But life took its ball and went home long ago. So you are playing to an empty stadium.

    1. I can only assume that you're referring to Winston Ewert's Evolution News and Views post confirming that I was right to tell 0'Sneery that a "search" actually doesn't search and "active information" actually isn't information. But do you know what Pyrrhic victory means? This hasn't cost me anything.

      "If you prove DEM wrong, you prove them right." I agree. The evolution of ID theory is closely analogous to acquisition of antibiotic resistance. But Dembski, Ewert, and Marks do have a few unresolved problems. If a "search" doesn't really search for the "target," then why do they continue to use those terms, and, more importantly, why do they continue to speak of evolutionary success and failure. Oopsies. As I told 0'Sneery in the postscript above, it's hard to think straight when you use misleading terminology.

      By the way, natural selection is a misleading term, and you clearly don't understand what it means. Differential reproductive success is a consequence of heredity, variety, and fecundity. Google, and ye shall find. Or don't, and ye shall remain aggressively ignorant.