Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Dembski's Math Paper

As part of his ongoing efforts to prove that he's something other than a hack, William Dembski posted this technical paper (in PDF format) at his website.

Dembski claims to have submitted this paper to the journal Complexity. Assuming this is true, we will have to wait for the journal's referrees to weigh in before learning the paper's fate.

However, the initial verditc is in. It is not favorable to Dembski. Cosma Shalizi is a post-doc in physics at the University of Michigan. He offers this devastating response to Dembski's paper. Parts of it get a bit technical, but the verdict is clear:

Dembski's paper seriously mis-represents the nature and use of information theory in a wide range of fields. What he puts forward as a new construction is in fact a particular case of a far more general idea, which was published forty-four years ago. That construction is extremely well-known and widely used in a number of fields in which Dembski purports to be an expert, namely information theory, hypothesis testing and the measurement of complexity. The manuscript contains exactly no new mathematics. Such is the work of a man described on one of his book jackets as “the Isaac Newton of information theory”. His home page says this is the first in a seven-part series on the “mathematical foundations of intelligent design” I can't wait. Or rather, I can.

The only thing I would add to Shalizi's comments is that the present paper has nothing whatever to do with evolution or ID. Presumably that connection is coming in future papers, but for now there is nothing. The only place where Dembski even mentions evolution is at the end of his paper, where he suggests possible applications of the apparatus he developed in the paper:

Distinguishing scientific theories in terms of informational continuity
and discontinuity. Classical physics consistently yields continuous information
spectra. By contrast, quantum physics yields discontinuous information
spectra. Likewise, classical evolutionary theories à la Darwin are gradualistic
and suggest continuous information spectra whereas saltational approaches to
evolution suggest discontinuous information spectra. To what extent can variational
information make this distinction rigorous and provide genuine insights
into the processes responsible for life’s evolutionary history?

Shorn of the technical jargon, it looks to me like Dembski is simply conflating “gradualism” in the biological sense with “continuous” in the mathematical sense. We'll have to wait and see if he has anything more clever than this in mind.