# Dembski challenges Felsenstein

at ENV to get up to date on the Law of Conservation of Information:

So, what is the difference between the earlier work on conservation of information and the later? The earlier work on conservation of information focused on particular events that matched particular patterns (specifications) and that could be assigned probabilities below certain cutoffs. Conservation of information in this sense was logically equivalent to the design detection apparatus that I had first laid out in my book The Design Inference (Cambridge, 1998).

In the newer approach to conservation of information, the focus is not on drawing design inferences but on understanding search in general and how information facilitates successful search. The focus is therefore not so much on individual probabilities as on probability distributions and how they change as searches incorporate information. My universal probability bound of 1 in 10^150 (a perennial sticking point for Shallit and Felsenstein) therefore becomes irrelevant in the new form of conservation of information whereas in the earlier it was essential because there a certain probability threshold had to be attained before conservation of information could be said to apply. The new form is more powerful and conceptually elegant. Rather than lead to a design inference, it shows that accounting for the information required for successful search leads to a regress that only intensifies as one backtracks. It therefore suggests an ultimate source of information, which it can reasonably be argued is a designer. I explain all this in a nontechnical way in an article I posted at ENV a few months back titled “Conservation of Information Made Simple” (go here).

So what’s the take-home lesson? It is this: Stephen Meyer’s grasp of conservation of information is up to date. His 2009 book Signature in the Cell devoted several chapters to the research by Marks and me on conservation of information, which in 2009 had been accepted for publication in the technical journals but had yet to be actually published. Consequently, we can expect Meyer’s 2013 book Darwin’s Doubt to show full cognizance of the conservation of information as it exists currently. By contrast, Felsenstein betrays a thoroughgoing ignorance of this literature.

It seems to me that Dembski has still entirely missed the point of Felsenstein’s (and others’) critique of his “Law of Conservation of Information”.  But perhaps it’s worth tackling Dembski’s newer formulations here?  The Dembski-Marks published papers, or perhaps the For Dummies article at ENV he links to above.

(Link to previous discussion of Dembsi’s Specification paper here, now re-un-stickied)

## 22 thoughts on “Dembski challenges Felsenstein”

1. No, he’s been caught out in a few pieces of skulduggery. But never mind the skulduggery – assuming his latest writings are his latest thoughts, what’s wrong with them? (And yes, I would say that the same things are wrong as were always wrong, except that his footwork has got a bit niftier when dealing with some of the obvious rebuttals).

Search always involves a goal or objective, as well as criteria of success and failure (as judged by what or whom?) depending on whether and to what degree the objective has been met. Where does that objective, typically known as a target, come from other than from the minds of human inquirers?

The fine-tuning of nature’s laws and constants that permits life to exist at all is not like this. It is a remarkable pattern and may properly be regarded as the solution to a search problem as well as a fundamental feature of nature, or what philosophers would call a natural kind, and not merely a human construct. Whether an intelligence is responsible for the success of this search is a separate question. The standard materialist line in response to such cosmological fine-tuning is to invoke multiple universes and view the success of this search as a selection effect: most searches ended without a life-permitting universe, but we happened to get lucky and live in a universe hospitable to life.

Mathematically speaking, search always occurs against a backdrop of possibilities (the search space), with the search being for a subset within this backdrop of possibilities (known as the target). Success and failure of search are then characterized in terms of a probability distribution over this backdrop of possibilities, the probability of success increasing to the degree that the probability of locating the target increases.
…The Easter egg hunt example provides a little preview of conservation of information. Blind search, if the search space is too large and the number of Easter eggs is too small, is highly unlikely to successfully locate the eggs. A guided search, in which the seeker is given feedback about his search by being told when he’s closer or farther from the egg, by contrast, promises to dramatically raise the probability of success of the search. The seeker is being given vital information bearing on the success of the search. But where did this information that gauges proximity of seeker to egg come from? Conservation of information claims that this information is itself as difficult to find as locating the egg by blind search, implying that the guided search is no better at finding the eggs than blind search once this information must be accounted for.

I think the main problem is Dembski’s concept of target. He simply cannot accept the possibility of drift. He cannot accept the possibility that biochemistry allows wandering around in functional space without being guided. He seems to have come grudgingly to the place now occupied by Michael Denton, which allows that the Designer may have set the cosmological constants so that functional space is rich with eggs, but he isn’t happy with the idea.

3. Thanks for the thread. I just noticed Dembski’s reply at ENV. I am considering making my main response at Panda’s Thumb, as he is complaining about a PT thread. But I will try to also perticipate here. Right now need to go off to my day job.

4. Just found this in Dembski’s ENV article:

It would actually be quite a remarkable property of nature if fitness across biological configuration space were so distributed that advantages could be cumulated gradually by a Darwinian process. Frankly, I don’t see the evidence for this.

5. Joe Felsenstein:
Thanks for the thread.I just noticed Dembski’s reply at ENV. I am considering making my main response at Panda’s Thumb, as he is complaining about a PT thread. But I will try to also perticipate here. Right now need to go off to my day job.

OK, will link when you get it up!

6. petrushka:

I think the main problem is Dembski’s concept of target. He simply cannot accept the possibility of drift. He cannot accept the possibility that biochemistry allows wandering around in functional space without being guided. He seems to have come grudgingly to the place now occupied by Michael Denton, which allows that the Designer may have set the cosmological constants so that functional space is rich with eggs, but he isn’t happy with the idea.

He also confuses concepts like “target” and “fitness landscape” and “reward”. I’ve got a separate post up about the For Dummies piece, thought. Perhaps we should leave this one for discussion of the bunfight with Joe!

7. Joe G has given me an idea. He writes (at UD)

Felsenstein is totally clueless wrt CSI and what ID says and argues against. And it shows. Unfortunately he has many people convinced- well he is singing to the choir.

His “arguments” would be destroyed if he ever posted them on a pro-ID forum.

How about posting them on a forum that welcomes both pro and anti ID posters? Like this one?

Because, with the sole exception of Joe G himself, anyone at UD is more than welcome to post here, where I think Joe Felsenstein would very happy to engage with them directly. I would also be prepared to moderate the thread with greater than usual strictness, to avoid pilings-on. Any takers?

8. Joe posts at a pro ID forum. Why doesn’t he just destroy them where he is?

9. petrushka:
Joe posts at a pro ID forum. Why doesn’t he just destroy them where he is?

Well, to be fair, they do try. But it’s not very persuasive if there is no opportunity for rebuttal.

10. Lizzie: Well, to be fair, they do try.But it’s not very persuasive if there is no opportunity for rebuttal.

Ooh, I think this is a great point.
Rational people shouldn’t let themselves be persuaded if they’ve only heard one side of a question. Yeah, yeah, they’re making a great case and it sounds so persuasive … but wait!! What if the “other side” makes an even better case and rebuts all the persuasive-sounding claims of the first side. The very absence of rebuttal should make their claims un-persuasive if you’re a rational reader. Alarms should be going off in your head that their suppression of opportunities for rebuttal signals they have something to hide.

IDists themselves recognize this on some level. That’s why they so often engage in the projection that “evilutionists” are trying to deny them their chance to make their case. It’s why they make lying tripe like Expelled. Because to them, the instinctive response is to suppress rebuttals – to shut down dissent on any flimsy excuse – they assume that everyone else is as manipulative as they are. Pure projection.

It’s not good for them either, honestly. If nothing else, they can’t really be sure of their own arguments’ correctness and clarity if no challenging questions are ever allowed.
But UD is now trapped in an enforcement loop that can’t be broken by anyone already within their system and which won’t allow any outsiders to comment long enough to have an effect. Too bad.

Of course, I’m biased myself. I did register yesterday at UD and try to post; my comment hasn’t made it out of moderation and apparently never will – even though I used no bad words, included no links, and merely invited UD to participate on TSZ where they won’t be banned for disagreeing.

11. hotshoe: IDists themselves recognize this on some level.That’s why they so often engage in the projection that “evilutionists” are trying to deny them their chance to make their case.It’s why they make lying tripe like Expelled.Because to them, the instinctive response is to suppress rebuttals – to shut down dissent on any flimsy excuse – they assume that everyone else is as manipulative as they are.Pure projection.

I’m not sure, but I think this is projection going both ways. Those on the science side tend to regard ID as lousy science, primarily because all those things that make science work – dispute, test, peer review, correct, test – are absent, or replaced by a nonfunctional caricature of science.

Those on the ID side regard the science as a giant pretense, a profound fraud. OF COURSE you start with your conclusions and force the evidence and reasoning to fit. This is how Truth is defended. And if the evidence does not fit, it cannot be evidence. Truth disallows that. Science is regarded as religion practiced by the deceitful.

The UD site, and creationist sites generaly (like the DI site) do not tolerate dissent because dissent is a priori unfounded. It’s not because they fear informed rebuttal. There IS no rebuttal to the Truth. So-called rebuttals can only be confusion, misdirection, and obfuscation. Which the Truth doesn’t need.

The differences between a school and a church aren’t just window dressing. A church isn’t just a misguided school, and a school isn’t just a misguided church. Teaching is not preaching, and vice versa.

12. “Rational people shouldn’t let themselves be persuaded if they’ve only heard one side of a question.”

Why not?

Or are you already persuaded, having heard only one side of the argument?

13. Mung:
“Rational people shouldn’t let themselves be persuaded if they’ve only heard one side of a question.”

Why not?

Or are you already persuaded, having heard only one side of the argument?

Incompetent quoteminer that you are, you definitely deserve the shame of being shown that the answer was in the very next sentence after the one you’re trying to poke me about.

Rational people shouldn’t let themselves be persuaded if they’ve only heard one side of a question.[edit to make visible the logical conjunction: BECAUSE] Yeah, yeah, they’re making a great case and it sounds so persuasive … but wait!! What if the “other side” makes an even better case and rebuts all the persuasive-sounding claims of the first side.

BECAUSE was not necessary to be spelled out in the original for anyone willing to read for comprehension since it was clearly implied by the logical structure of the paragraph. I admit it’s possible for a completely ignorant bystander as well as a deliberately-misquoting IDist to have missed my point. Illiteracy is an all-too-common tragedy in the USA. I’m not apologizing, though, for what I write; it’s not my fault you can’t or won’t read.

14. Joe Felsenstein:
I have now posted at Panda’s Thumb my reply to Dembski.I will to participate here in discussion of it and of comments.

Just a heads up. A Masked Panda seems to be JoeG from UD and from his Intelligent Reasoning blog. The same Joe who was banned here.

15. petrushka: Just a heads up. A Masked Panda seems to be JoeG from UD and from his Intelligent Reasoning blog. The same Joe who was banned here.

Yes, I think he is. He’s not banned at PT. I am making sure that discussion stays on topic.

However “A Masked Panda” is not his choice. The PT software assigns that name to anyone doing an anonymous login. So a number of different people get that name. Some even sign their name within the comment — they are ones who indicate that for some reason the PT software is not letting them establish a named account (it is cranky). The one who is (we are pretty sure) JoeG is the Masked Panda that ends in “-pWQ”

17. There is a Crew email mailing list, and I am on the Crew. I will raise this there and get back to you.

Actually, since I wrote those words, and before I pushed the Publish button, the chief honcho at PT just emailed me about something else. So in my response I sent along your complaint. Let’s see what he says.

18. From the owner of the PT website (and of the machine it runs on), here is the official word. I’m not quite sure what it means:

That is what happens when someone uses google. They can create a local account using whatever nickname they want.

19. I have now posted a correction to my post on CSI at Panda’s Thumb. In response to a question from commenter “diogeneslamp0” I reexamined whether Dembski had modeled evolution as a 1-1 transformation in the genome space. A rereading of the proper sections of No Free Lunch show (duh) that he didn’t: he allowed many-to-one transformations too.

It turns out that the rest of my argument still holds, though — Dembski cannot enforce that the specification be the same one before and after evolutionary change. As I had argued, that makes his argument unable to show that evolution cannot increase adaptation. See the correction at the end of my PT post, and see my reply to diogeneslamp0 in a comment on 4/10/2013 at 4:43pm.

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