Felsenstein presents the 37th Fisher Memorial Lecture

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Joe Felsenstein, who posts and comments in The Skeptical Zone, presented the 37th Fisher Memorial Lecture on January 4, 2018. The video recording of his lecture is now available. I’d say that the cover frame, at the very least, was well worth the wait.

Rooting out confusion is much harder than sowing it

Excuse me for attaching to this post a brief rejoinder to a pathetic response to the lecture. Andrew Jones’s “The Law of Zero Magic” appeared in the flagship publication of the intelligent design (ID) movement, Evolution News & Science Today. The title is hugely ironic, inasmuch as the movement conceives of intelligent design as violation of a law of nature, and struggles to devise the law that is violated. Continue reading

To Basener and Sanford: This is the 21st Century

What is The Skeptical Zone, William Basener and John Sanford? Why should you care?

The Skeptical Zone is where a couple of distinguished biologists, Joe Felsenstein and Michael Lynch, have dignified a recently published article of yours with a response. That is all you need to know. If they had responded on the back of a cereal box instead, providing you with a form to clip, then it would have behooved you to clip the form, fill it out, and send it, along with a self-addressed, stamped envelope, to their post office box in Battle Creek, Michigan.

Of course, I am dating myself — and also you. That is just the point. You ought to know that, even as the computer enables studies that were impossible when Ronald Fisher dubbed a not-so-fundamental result of his the Fundamental Theorem of Natural Selection, it enables interaction with domain experts in ways that were impossible in Fisher’s time. We are well into the 21st Century, and no one under the age of 50 will find credible any reason you might offer for declining to engage Joe in this forum. You can ignore all of the riff-raff, myself included, and interact with the scientist who happened, about the time that your paper addressing Fisher’s theorem was published, to address the theorem in the 37th Fisher Memorial Lecture (via video link, I might add).

The prospects for resolving some points, and arriving at a degree of agreement, are much better in a modern exchange of comments than in an old-fashioned exchange of essays. One aspect of The Skeptical Zone makes it particularly appealing in discussion of mathematical models: you can enter stuff like \LaTeX between two dollar signs, and cause readers to see stuff like \LaTeX. It’s a miracle!

Fisher’s not-so-fundamental theorem

Congratulations to our resident theoretical biologist of high renown, Joe Felsenstein, on his presentation, yesterday, of the 37th Fisher Memorial Lecture. [ETA: I’ll post a separate announcement of the video, when it is released.] Following are the details provided by the Fisher Memorial Trust (with a link added by me).

Title: Is there a more fundamental theorem of natural selection?

Abstract. R.A. Fisher’s Fundamental Theorem of Natural Selection has intrigued evolutionary biologists, who wondered whether it could be the basis of a general maximum principle for mean fitness of the population. Subsequent work by Warren Ewens, Anthony Edwards, and George Price showed that a reasonable version of the FTNS is true, but only if the quantity being increased by natural selection is not the mean fitness of the population but a more indirectly defined quantity. That leaves us in an unsatisfactory state. In spite of Fisher’s assertion that the theorem “hold[s] the supreme position among the biological sciences”, the Fundamental Theorem is, alas, not-so-fundamental. There is also the problem that the additive genetic variances involved do not change in an easily predictable way. Nevertheless, the FTNS is an early, and imaginative, attempt at formulating macro-scale laws from population-genetic principles. I will not attempt to revive the FTNS, but instead am trying to extend a 1978 model of mine, put forth in what may be my least-cited paper. This attempts to make a “toy” model of an evolving population in which we can bookkeep energy flows through an evolving population, and derive a long-term prediction for change of the energy content of the system. It may be possible to connect these predictions to the rate of increase of the adaptive information (the “specified information”) embodied in the genetic information in the organisms. The models are somewhat absurdly oversimple, but I argue that models like this at least can give us some results, which decades of more handwavy papers on the general connection between evolution, entropy, and information have not.

There are only two sides, and you are on one or the other of them

We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides.

— Donald J. Trump

He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.

— Martin Luther King, Jr.

I condemn, in the strongest possible terms, the involvement of President of the United States in the evil of racism. The counter-protesters in Charlottesville lapsed into evil, to be sure. Meeting violence with violence, they handed their adversaries a huge victory. But their error does not make them the moral equivalent of white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and Klansmen. Seizing on their error to construct such an equivalence, as Donald Trump has done, is positively obscene. “Grab them by the pussy” pales in comparison.

Evo-Info 3: Evolution is not search

Introduction to Evolutionary Informatics, by Robert J. Marks II, the “Charles Darwin of Intelligent Design”; William A. Dembski, the “Isaac Newton of Information Theory”; and Winston Ewert, the “Charles Ingram of Active Information.” World Scientific, 332 pages.
Classification: Engineering mathematics. Engineering analysis. (TA347)
Subjects: Evolutionary computation. Information technology–Mathematics.

Marks, Dembski, and Ewert open Chapter 3 by stating the central fallacy of evolutionary informatics: “Evolution is often modeled by as [sic] a search process.” The long and the short of it is that they do not understand the models, and consequently mistake what a modeler does for what an engineer might do when searching for a solution to a given problem. What I hope to convey in this post, primarily by means of graphics, is that fine-tuning a model of evolution, and thereby obtaining an evolutionary process in which a maximally fit individual emerges rapidly, is nothing like informing evolution to search for the best solution to a problem. We consider, specifically, a simulation model presented by Christian apologist David Glass in a paper challenging evolutionary gradualism à la Dawkins. The behavior on exhibit below is qualitatively similar to that of various biological models of evolution.

Animation 1. Parental populations in the first 2000 generations of a run of the Glass model, with parameters (mutation rate .005, population size 500) tuned to speed the first occurrence of maximum fitness (1857 generations, on average), are shown in orange. Offspring are generated in pairs by recombination and mutation of heritable traits of randomly mated parents. The fitness of an individual in the parental population is, loosely, the number of pairs of offspring it is expected to leave. In each generation, the parental population is replaced by surviving offspring. Which of the offspring die is arbitrary. When the model is modified to begin with a maximally fit population, the long-term regime of the resulting process (blue) is the same as for the original process. Rather than seek out maximum fitness, the two evolutionary processes settle into statistical equilibrium.

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Two planets with life are more miraculous than one

The Sensuous Curmudgeon, who presently cannot post to his weblog, comments:

This Discoveroid article is amazing. Could Atheism Survive the Discovery of Extraterrestrial Life?. I wish I could make a new post about it. They say that if life is found elsewhere, that too is a miracle, so then you gotta believe in the intelligent designer. They say:

“The probability of life spontaneously self-assembling anywhere in this universe is mind-staggeringly unlikely; essentially zero. If you are so unquestioningly naïve as to believe we just got incredibly lucky, then bless your soul.”

Actually, “they” who posted at Evolution News and Views is someone we all love dearly, and see occasionally in the Zone — that master of arguments from improbability, Kirk Durston.

Evo-Info review: Do not buy the book until…

Introduction to Evolutionary Informatics, by Robert J. Marks II, the “Charles Darwin of Intelligent Design”; William A. Dembski, the “Isaac Newton of Information Theory”; and Winston Ewert, the “Charles Ingram of Active Information.” World Scientific, 332 pages.
Classification: Engineering mathematics. Engineering analysis. (TA347)
Subjects: Evolutionary computation. Information technology–Mathematics.

… the authors establish that their mathematical analysis of search applies to models of evolution.

I have all sorts of fancy stuff to say about the new book by Marks, Dembski, and Ewert. But I wonder whether I should say anything fancy at all. There is a ginormous flaw in evolutionary informatics, quite easy to see when it’s pointed out to you. The authors develop mathematical analysis of apples, and then apply it to oranges. You need not know what apples and oranges are to see that the authors have got some explaining to do. When applying the analysis to an orange, they must identify their assumptions about apples, and show that the assumptions hold also for the orange. Otherwise the results are meaningless.

The authors have proved that there is “conservation of information” in search for a solution to a problem. I have simplified, generalized, and trivialized their results. I have also explained that their measure of “information” is actually a measure of performance. But I see now that the technical points really do not matter. What matters is that the authors have never identified, let alone justified, the assumptions of the math in their studies of evolutionary models.a They have measured “information” in models, and made a big deal of it because “information” is conserved in search for a solution to a problem. What does search for a solution to a problem have to do with modeling of evolution? Search me. In the absence of a demonstration that their “conservation of information” math applies to a model of evolution, their measurement of “information” means nothing. It especially does not mean that the evolutionary process in the model is intelligently designed by the modeler.1

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Evo-Info sidebar: Conservation of performance in search

Introduction to Evolutionary Informatics, by Robert J. Marks II, the “Charles Darwin of Intelligent Design”; William A. Dembski, the “Isaac Newton of Information Theory”; and Winston Ewert, the “Charles Ingram of Active Information.” World Scientific, 332 pages.
Classification: Engineering mathematics. Engineering analysis. (TA347)
Subjects: Evolutionary computation. Information technology–Mathematics.

Denyse O’Leary, an advocacy journalist employed by one of the principals of the Center for Evolutionary Informatics, reports that I have essentially retracted the first of my papers on the “no free lunch” theorems for search (1996). What I actually have done in my online copy of the paper, marked “emended and amplified,” is to correct an expository error that Dembski and Marks elevated to “English’s Principle of Conservation of Information” in the first of their publications, “Conservation of Information in Search: Measuring the Cost of Success.” Marks, Dembski, and Ewert have responded, in their new book, by deleting me from the history of “no free lunch.” And the consequence is rather amusing. For now, when explaining conservation of information in terms of no free lunch, they refer over and over to performance.1 It doesn’t take a computer scientist, or even a rocket scientist, to see that they are describing conservation of performance, and calling it conservation of information.

The mathematical results of my paper are correct, though poorly argued. In fact, the theorem I provide is more general than the main theorem of Wolpert and Macready, which was published the following year.2 If you’re going to refer to one of the two theorems as the No Free Lunch Theorem, then it really should be mine. Where I go awry is in the exposition of my results. I mistake a lemma as indicating that conservation of performance in search is due ultimately to conservation of information in search.
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Evo-Info: Publication delayed, supporting materials online

Introduction to Evolutionary Informatics, by Robert J. Marks II, the “Charles Darwin of Intelligent Design”; William A. Dembski, the “Isaac Newton of Information Theory”; and Winston Ewert, the “Charles Ingram of Active Information.” World Scientific, 350 pages. Jan 31 May 1, 2017.
Classification: Engineering mathematics. Engineering analysis. (TA347)
Subjects: Evolutionary computation. Information technology–Mathematics.

I cannot tell you exactly what will be in the forthcoming book by Marks, Dembski, and Ewert. I made it clear in Evo-Info 1 and Evo-Info 2 that I was responding primarily to technical papers on which the book is based. With publication delayed once again, I worry that the authors will revise the manuscript to deflect my criticisms. Thus I’m going to focus for a while on the recent contributions to the “evolutionary informatics” strain of creationism by George D. Montañez, a former advisee of Marks who is presently a doctoral candidate in machine learning at Carnegie Mellon University (advisor: Cosma Shalizi). My advice for George is that if he wants not to taken for a duck, then he had better not walk like a duck and swim like a duck and quack like a duck. Continue reading

Where is the scientific evidence that arguments change minds?

There is considerable scientific evidence that arguing with people about their beliefs usually has an effect opposite of what you would hope (assuming, generously, that you care more about the effect your arguing has on others than the effect it has on you). I’m sure that most of you have seen reviews of the relevant literature. In any case, I have not the least interest in arguing about the evidence that arguing hardens, rather than changes, beliefs. Why? I insist that, as obviously negative as arguments are, the burden is on the arguer to provide strong evidence that arguing is, on balance, more beneficial than harmful.

It would be entertaining to observe the arguing of the most compulsive of arguers that they actually do not argue. But let’s make that a wee bit harder for them to do, and require that, whatever they regard their not-arguing to be, they present scientific evidence that it generally benefits the people with whom they not-argue. And, no, I have not overlooked the fantasy that the benefit is to the silent Onlookers, and that you are their Champion. Either provide us with evidence that there exists such an effect, or entertain us with your Kairosfocus imitation.

William J. Murray’s alternative facts about Europe

ETA: Unlike “William J. Murray” of The Skeptical Zone, William J. Murray is not on record advocating torture.

There’s much more to the ecosystem of far-right “news” outlets than Breitbart and Infowars. Most of you are aware of that by now. But it seems that few of you are aware of how William J. Murray, the putatively reverend chairman of Religious Freedom Coalition, contributes to the affair. Here he is, in his natural element, showing his true colors (apart from his coif). I didn’t go digging for this video. It comes from the “About” page of Murray’s nonprofit. Here’s a sample:

Europe has been importing hundreds of thousands of Muslims because the women of Europe don’t want to have children. They want to play. They want to have fun. They want to go on long vacations. They want to have money. … They don’t believe that propagation of the species is the most important thing that they’re here for.

You cannot fully grasp the significance this performance without watching the commercial at 20:30.

Republican Senator John McCain chooses his words carefully…

… and yet speaks powerfully to the dangers that we face. This is something that the Europeans in the crowd should not miss (and I don’t know how often they see news of Sunday-morning television in the States). But there’s more than that to my decision to post the video. We presently have a Chrumptian propaganda piece, “Trump Hysteria,” on the front page of The Skeptical Zone. The author, William J. Murray, goes so far in his support of Trump as to endorse torture (see the comments section). John McCain in fact suffered torture as a prisoner in North Vietnam, and has opposed torture steadfastly in his political career. And, perhaps more to the point, he’s anything but hysterical. It is McCain’s caution and restraint that make his remarks chilling.

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Evo-Info 2: Teaser for algorithmic specified complexity

Introduction to Evolutionary Informatics, by Robert J. Marks II, the “Charles Darwin of Intelligent Design”; William A. Dembski, the “Isaac Newton of Information Theory”; and Winston Ewert, the “Charles Ingram of Active Information.” World Scientific, 350 pages. January 30, 2017.
Classification: Engineering mathematics. Engineering analysis. (TA347)
Subjects: Evolutionary computation. Information technology–Mathematics.

The introduction to this series ended with a promise of insights into evolutionary informatics that the forthcoming book by Marks, Dembski, and Ewert is unlikely to afford. There will be little doubt at the end of the fourth installment that I have delivered the goods. First I want to assure you that, although I subscribe to the philosophy “Into Each Life, Some Math Must Fall,” the downpour of abstract notions, Greek letters, and squiggly marks will be intermittent, not unrelenting.

1280pxFujRusSunset in the Garden of Id

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Evo-Info 1: Engineering analysis construed as metaphysics

Introduction to Evolutionary Informatics, by Robert J. Marks II, the “Charles Darwin of Intelligent Design”; William A. Dembski, the “Isaac Newton of Information Theory”; and Winston Ewert, the “Charles Ingram of Active Information.” World Scientific, 350 pages. January 30, 2017.
Classification: Engineering mathematics. Engineering analysis. (TA347)
Subjects: Evolutionary computation. Information technology–Mathematics.

World Scientific is pitching Introduction to Evolutionary Informatics, by Robert Marks, William Dembski, and Winston Ewert, to a general readership, but with particular note of enthusiasts of apologetics. The book features the Conservation of Information Theorem, which was the centerpiece of Dembski’s religio-philosophical treatise Being as Communion: A Metaphysics of Information (2014). So there is no denying that the authors regard their mathematical arguments as support for their religious views. And there is no great surprise in learning that the nonprofit Center for Evolutionary Informatics, operated by Marks and Dembski, has the alternate name Arbor Ministries in public records. The forthcoming book includes a section titled “The Genesis,” and this leads me to hope that the authors, mindful of the canonical teachings of Jesus, have made a clear statement of faith.

No one lights a lamp and hides it in a clay jar or puts it under a bed. Instead, they put it on a stand, so that those who come in can see the light. For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open. Therefore consider carefully how you listen. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they think they have will be taken from them.

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Chesil Beach is high in algorithmic specified complexity

Winston Ewert, William A. Dembski, and Robert J. Marks II rebranded specified complexity as a measure of meaningful information, at the Engineering and Metaphysics 2012 Conference. In my mind, that was quite a remarkable event in the history of the “intelligent design” (ID) offshoot of “creation science” — particularly in light of the fact that Dembski and Marks changed the meaning of information in the Law of Conservation of Information from specified complexity to active information, back in 2008. But the organizer of that conference, Jonathan Bartlett, seems not to have noticed. He recently undertook to explain algorithmic specified complexity to the unwashed masses, but made no mention at all of meaning.

Jonathan approves of my observation, posted here in The Skeptical Zone, that the “conga lines” formed by hermit crabs are high in algorithmic specified complexity (emphasis added):

Tom English asked about Hermit Crabs forming a line. I agree that this exhibits high ASC for certain things (remember, ASC depends on what you are comparing it to). It gives a high ASC for the line compared to the hermit crabs just walking around. That seems like a success, not a fail, as you have successfully determined that they are lined up intentionally. Even though you don’t have all of the prerequisites for a design inference (at least in your post here), you have at least shown that intentionality on behalf of the hermit crabs is a live possibility. Since they are lining up for a particular purpose, that seems to line up with reality.

He has not responded to my main point (emphasis in original):

Distinguishable entities operating identically by simple rules can form structures high in specified complexity. That is, the crabs in the video differ in size, but not in the “program” they execute. Want more specified complexity? Just add crabs.

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Thirty years ago today…

… the Supreme Court of the United States heard oral arguments in the case of Edwards v. Aguillard. Four days later, the New York Times published Michael T. Ghiselin’s review of The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design. The “intelligent design” offshoot of “creation science” is as much a response to the dissenting opinion of Justice Antonin Scalia as to the work of popular science by the arch atheist Richard Dawkins.

True or false? Log-improbability is Shannon information

True or false? If p is the probability of an event, then the Shannon information of the event is -\!\log_2 p bits.

I’m quite interested in knowing what you believe, and why you believe it, even if you cannot justify your belief formally.

Formal version. Let (\Omega, 2^\Omega, P) be a discrete probability space with P(\Omega) = 1, and let event E be an arbitrary subset of \Omega. Is it the case that in Shannon’s mathematical theory of communication, the self-information of the event is equal to -\!\log_2 P(E) bits?

Active information defined… for the fourth time in nine years?

Yesterday, a couple of folks let me know of a paper that crypto-creationist [ETA: perhaps under reform] George Montañez had just posted at arXiv, “The Famine of Forte: Few Search Problems Greatly Favor Your Algorithm.” Below you’ll find my response to one of them. I should explain a few things, by way of introduction.

Montañez is a former advisee of the “Charles Darwin of intelligent design,” Baylor University professor Robert J. Marks II. Last I heard, he was pursuing doctoral studies in machine learning at Carnegie Mellon University. He worked not only with Marks, but also with William A. Dembski, the “Isaac Newton of information theory,” and Winston Ewert, the “Pooh Bear of evolutionary informatics,” on applications of measures of active information. He is still affiliated with them at the Evolutionary Informatics Lab. I refer to the core of affiliates who actually contribute to the output of the Lab — Marks, Dembski, Ewert, and Montañez — as Team EIL. The first three of them have a book scheduled for release by World Scientific on January 30, 2017. The title is Introduction to Evolutionary Informatics. I am trying to pull together a series of posts with the same title.

My email note follows.

[ETA: George Montañez has kindly responded here at TSZ. Contrary to what I guess below, he is not presently collaborating with the authors of the book.]

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Evidence of greater interest in the Flying Spaghetti Monster than in ID

When the Click Whore of Babylon appeals to her own authority, the chances are high that her rhetoric is designed to conceal an intolerable truth:

My sense, based on some years of coverage at Uncommon Descent, is that Pastafarianism has changed its focus. […] They could not stay in the game with ID indefinitely because they would need to be something other than just a big practical joke that went on way too long.

My response to her pulling stuff out of her ass is of course not to pull stuff out of my ass, but instead to look for evidence. What came immediately to mind was to plug the terms “Flying Spaghetti Monster” and “intelligent design” into Google Trends.

Interest in FSM and ID Since 2004

According to Google Trends, interest in "Flying Spaghetti Monster" has been

According to Google Trends, interest in “intelligent design” (red) has declined steadily since the Dover trial. Interest in “Flying Spaghetti Monster” (blue) has plateaued.

Interest in FSM and ID over the Past Five Years

According to Google Trends, there has been more interest in the Flying Spaghetti Monster than in "intelligent design" crypto-creationism over the past five years.

According to Google Trends, there has been more interest in “Flying Spaghetti Monster” (blue) than in “intelligent design” (red) over the past five years. The average levels of interest in the FSM and ID are, respectively, 20 and 12.

The parody of religion evidently has greater staying power than the parody of science.