Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Dembski and Perakh

Physicist Mark Perakh, who maintains the excellent website Talk Reason, has written this interesting post over at The Panda's Thumb. In it, he discusses a recent essay of his, published in the new issue of Skeptic, in which he provdes an excellent summary of the major deficiencies in William Dembski's work.

The article is not yet available online (when it is, I will link to it and provide further commentary). Nonetheless, Dembski has written this brief response to Perakh blog entry. For reasons that are obscure, he refers to Perakh as “The Boris Yeltsin” of higher education. Here, in its entirety, is what Dembski has to say:

Mark Perakh, the Boris Yeltsin of higher learning, has weighed in with yet another screed against me (go here). The man is out of his element. Iā€™m still awaiting his detailed critique of “Searching Large Spaces” ā€” does he even understand the relevant math?

I do not know if Mark has bothered to slog through Dembski's paper,available here. But I have. At some point I might write a lengthy critique of the paper, though with the start of the school year coming up that's definitely a low priority project.

Here's the short version. As an exercise in formal mathematics the paper seems unobjectionable. I have never questioned Dembski's ability to manipulate symbols in accordance with the rules of algebra and calculus. In mathematics you can establish whatver definitions and axioms you like and then prove whatever theorems follow from them. The tricky part is getting your mathematical formalism to correspond to anything in reality.

And that is where Dembski fails completely. He certainly has not modelled anything remotely like Darwinian evolution. His pride and joy, “The Displacement Theorem” (which he has immodestly dubbed The Fundamental Theorem of Intelligent Design), contains so many abstract symbols lacking real-world counterparts that there is no way to apply it in any biological context.

The fact is, Dembski's recent series of technical mathematics papers exist for the sole purpose of providing a shield against would-be critics. You can see Dembski employing the strategy in his brief remarks above. Rather than respond to Perakh's cogent arguments, he simply refers to his technical papers and says Perakh should be rpelying to them instead. It's as if we're supposed to ignore his seemingly endless output of popular-level tripe. No doubt if Perakh, or anyone else, does respond to Dembski's papers, then Dembski will simply produce something new and say, “Now you must reply to this one.”

Dembski's displacement theorem does not in any way further the argument he made in section 4.7 of No Free Lunch. He has simply translated the argument he made there into symbols. But an argument that is inane in everyday language remains inane when translated into math-ese.


At 3:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Help me !

Can someone out there please explain to me the whole "target in large probability space" deal ? As far as I am concerned, it is the same thing as finding the identical sequence to a series of a billion coin flips. I have skimmed through some of Dembski's math, and I can't find an answer. When I try to get an answer on his blog, I am overwhelmed with a bunch of confusing mumbo jumbo that doesn't seem to address the question at hand.

At 5:12 PM, Blogger John Wendt said...

That seems to be what he wants to do. If he knew any biology, though, he would realize that (1) the target is not as small as he suggests, because amino-acid sequences have a lot of degeneracy, and (2) the space is not as large as he suggests, because patterns of substitution (mutation)) suggest that the first organisms had fewer than 20 amino acids; almost half came in later, maybe gradually.

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