17 November, 2010

Michael Behe lecture

Intelligent design proponent Michael Behe is giving a talk in London on Monday 22nd November as part of his tour of the UK. From the ad:

200 bones. 600 muscles. Millions of nerves. Billions of cells. Trillions of organisms all working together to make one body - you. But how? An accident of evolution?

Book now for the 'Darwin or Design?' tour featuring US scientist Prof. Michael Behe and hear why he claims to have discovered evidence that life is really designed - findings that have rocked the scientific world.

The 'Darwin or Design?' national tour starts Sat 20th November. See and hear the scientific case for Intelligent Design from its leading voice - Prof Michael Behe.

Ask your questions live from the floor - engage personally with Mike Behe.

I'll be there. I would like to hear his comments on the following:

1) Behe claims that intelligent design is falsifiable, in that if someone can show how an 'irreducibly complex' system evolved in a stepwise fashion, then intelligent design would be proved incorrect. But this seems unlikely to me. If someone showed how the flagellum evolved step-by-step, Behe could simply say 'OK, the flagellum wasn't intelligently designed, but the immune system was'. In other words, he can always move around and point to another supposedly irreducibly complex system to support his argument. I think this refutes the notion that intelligent design is falsifiable.

2) If we base our knowledge of design on human design, as ID proponents do, then we must base our knowledge of intelligent designers on humans. So if ID is true, this means that intelligent designers (humans) are themselves designed by a intelligent designer. But crucially this 'earlier' intelligent designer is subject to the same criteria and so must also have been designed. This inevitably leads to an infinite regress of designers and a continual begging of the same question. I expand on this point here.

3) Behe claims that a system is irreducibly complex by the following:

By irreducible complexity I mean a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning

The problem is that this isn't evidence of intelligent design. It is actually predicted to happen by evolutionary theory. These ‘irreducibly complex’ systems CAN evolve through step-by-step neo-Darwinian evolution. Herman Muller described the process back in 1918. For example, take a relatively complex system that performs a function. Next, gradually make that system more efficient and sophisticated by step-by-step addition of new “parts”. Then, remove some of the earlier redundant “parts” (as happens in evolution) thus increasing efficiency. You now have a more complex system than the previous one, however, if you were to artificially remove a “part” of this new system, it would cease to function. As you should be able to see, this does not mean that it couldn’t have evolved.

Here is an analogy...

Imagine a river with three stepping stones forming a rudimentary bridge. The stones constitute a system with a function. If you add a long piece of wood across all three stones it is now a slightly more complex system, still with the same function. The middle stone can now be removed without loss of function, and this newer (slightly) more complex system is more efficient in that you can walk across it rather than hopping from stone to stone. If you now remove any of the other parts of this system, ie the wood or the two outer stones, it will lose its function, and thus the bridge can be termed irreducibly complex. However, it came about in a step-by-step fashion (which includes removal of redundant parts) without loss of function.


Edit 01/12/10

I was unable to attend the talk but PaulJ has provided a report.


11 November, 2010

Black Magic Fail

In 2008, an Indian man called Sanal Edamaruku agreed for a famous tantra master to try and kill him with 'black magic' on live TV. The event was apparently watched by millions of people in India, many of whom live in fear of this type of black magic. Scheduled programs were dropped to allow for the live pictures to beamed across the country. As described by Edamaruku:

He boasted that he was able to kill anyone by mantra and tantra within three minutes. I grabbed my chance to put him in check and offered myself for a test. Caught on air, he couldn't escape without losing face – and his high-profile clientele. So our unprecedented experiment began.

As you can see, the tantrik tries lots of different methods and Edamaruku just stands there and laughs...

Following the failure to kill his volunteer, the tantrik suggests that he is invoking a god to protect himself. Edamaruku just laughs this suggestion off and explains that he is an atheist. The tantrik, clearly grasping at straws at this stage, claims that the black magic must be done at night, and so Edamaruku calls his bluff and offers his services again...that very night.

With no way to escape, he upped the stakes and agreed to perform the "ultimate destruction ceremony" that would kill me dead sure. With ratings soaring, the programme overran, rolling on and on in "breaking news" mode. The channel announced another round of our epic battle for the night show.

Not surprisingly, the black magic had NO effect whatsoever. Most importantly, millions of people saw that a superstition they had grown up believing to be true was actually a load of nonsense.

Part of the success of this event was the fact that the tantrik clearly believed in his abilities and so agreed to demonstrate them on live TV. Unfortunately, most practitioners of pseudoscience are less eager to directly test their claims in such a mainstream way (although a few have tried, and failed). Perhaps they know if they did so, the results would be similar to the above.


04 November, 2010

Conservation of Information - meh!

This post is an expansion of a comment I left over at SMRT a while back. The topic was 'information' and whether or not it can be considered as a measurable quantifiable 'thing'. As stated by WEM in the OP:

There are a bunch of conservation laws (energy, momentum [angular and linear], electrical charge, etc); simply put, the value of X in a closed system will be unchanged no matter how that system changes.

It seems to me that Christian fundamentalists are trying to get "Information" added to the list. Although the devil's in the details (re. the definition of "information", whether a system is open or closed, etc), the idea is that it requires an external agent (ie. God) to introduce information to a system.

So is the total amount of information conserved? Is information an objective 'thing' that can be used by Creationists as some sort of proof for their God?

Here's my take on it...

Since different people can glean different information from the exact same source, this means that the very existence of information is subjective. It is fallacious to say that 'the information is there, you're just not seeing it', because that would leave open the possibility that there is additional information present which nobody has seen, and hence this refutes the notion that there is a quantifiable amount of information in the first place.

There could always be more information.

If two people are watching a documentary, they are taking in information. However, if one of them falls asleep before the end, the amount of information in the universe will be less than what would have existed had they both stayed awake. Thus, it is impossible to assign a tangible value to the amount of information in any system at any time, and so it is also impossible to definitively state whether it has increased or not - the amount of information might have increased for one observer but decreased for another.

The following scenario shows what I mean...

Two men watch a library and all its original contents (no other copies) burn to the ground. The first man observes a loss of information as hundreds of thousands of original books are incinerated. Most people would probably agree with this man. However, the second man, who is not interested in literature, observes an increase in information because he is an arsonist and has thus gained plenty of information from the experience. Who is to say that more information was lost than gained? What if 2 arsonists gleaned information from the fire? Would that mean that twice as much information was gained? If so, what if a billion arsonists were watching? By increasing the amount of arsonists watching, at some point in theoretical space more information would have been gained than lost. The same can be demonstrated the opposite way too, meaning information is subjective and can't be quantified or said to have definitively increased or decreased.

I'm not claiming that this example proves anything - I don't know enough about this subject and I imagine the definition of information is fuzzy at best. However, it does seem to suggest that information is not an objective thing that can be used to prove the existence of a God; eh sorry, I mean of an Intelligent Designer.


02 November, 2010

Richard Feynman is awesome

I can't believe I've never seen this interview until now. I recommend that anyone with even a passing interest in science (mainly physics and a bit of chemistry and biology) should watch it. It's basically everything you wanted to know about in school, but they never taught.



Rubber bands:







Stars 2:


Thinking 2: