Discoveroids: Intelligent Design’s “Wow” Signal?

We sometimes write about interesting scientific research that we think the creationists can misinterpret and claim to be evidence of creationism. Our predictions are almost always correct.

But today the tables have turned. It’s the Discoveroids — described in the Cast of Characters section of our Intro page — who are posting about a new discovery (of sorts) and who are predicting that scientists will try to deny its creationist implications. Their article is In the Planetary Science Journal Icarus, the “Wow” Signal of Intelligent Design. Here are some excerpts, with bold font added by us:

Here’s a new paper that can be added to the growing stack of intelligent-design papers in peer-reviewed journals.

The “growing stack”? BWAHAHAHAHAHA! Until today, all their so-called peer-reviewed articles have been published in their own captive “peer reviewed” journal (BIO-Complexity), based on “research” from their own creation science lab (Biologic Institute), and then promoted by their own “peer reviewed” vanity press operation (Discovery Institute Press). Their imitation of the accouterments of science makes them look like a cargo cult.

But that’s not true of Icarus; it’s the real thing. This is the paper they’re talking about: The “Wow! signal” of the terrestrial genetic code. You can’t read it without a subscription, but here’s the abstract, which we’ll break into a few paragraphs for easier reading:

It has been repeatedly proposed to expand the scope for SETI, and one of the suggested alternatives to radio is the biological media. Genomic DNA is already used on Earth to store non-biological information. Though smaller in capacity, but stronger in noise immunity is the genetic code. The code is a flexible mapping between codons and amino acids, and this flexibility allows modifying the code artificially. But once fixed, the code might stay unchanged over cosmological timescales; in fact, it is the most durable construct known. Therefore it represents an exceptionally reliable storage for an intelligent signature, if that conforms to biological and thermodynamic requirements.

As the actual scenario for the origin of terrestrial life is far from being settled, the proposal that it might have been seeded intentionally cannot be ruled out. A statistically strong intelligent-like “signal” in the genetic code is then a testable consequence of such scenario. Here we show that the terrestrial code displays a thorough precision-type orderliness matching the criteria to be considered an informational signal.

Simple arrangements of the code reveal an ensemble of arithmetical and ideographical patterns of the same symbolic language. Accurate and systematic, these underlying patterns appear as a product of precision logic and nontrivial computing rather than of stochastic processes (the null hypothesis that they are due to chance coupled with presumable evolutionary pathways is rejected with P-value < 10–13).

The patterns display readily recognizable hallmarks of artificiality, among which are the symbol of zero, the privileged decimal syntax and semantical symmetries. Besides, extraction of the signal involves logically straightforward but abstract operations, making the patterns essentially irreducible to natural origin. Plausible ways of embedding the signal into the code and possible interpretation of its content are discussed. Overall, while the code is nearly optimized biologically, its limited capacity is used extremely efficiently to pass non-biological information.

Who did this research? It’s in a genuine science journal, so obviously it wasn’t the Discoveroids. Here are the paper’s authors: Vladimir I. shCherbak, who received his Master degree in Physics from Al-Farabi Kazakh National University (in Kazakhstan) in 1970. Since 1980 he is a senior researcher in the Laboratory of computer science in biology at the Department of Mathematics, where he received his PhD and became the chief of the Laboratory in 1995. The other author is Maxim A. Makukov, who received his Master degree in Physics from Lomonosov Moscow State University in 2004. If he has a PhD, it’s not mentioned. Okay, back to the Discoveroids:

Even though the authors do not use the phrase “intelligent design,” their reasoning centers on the detection of an intelligent signal embedded in the genetic code — a mathematical and semantic message that cannot be accounted for natural cause, “be it Darwinian, Lamarckian,” chemical affinities or energetics, or any others.

It absolutely can’t be accounted for by a natural cause? We don’t see that, but we’ll let it go. It appears that the Discoveroids have accepted the paper’s speculations as fact, and they’re already defensive about it. They say:

How will evolutionists respond to this paper? It’s hard to see how they could dismiss it. Maybe they will try to mock it as old Arabian numerology, or religiously inspired (since Kazakhstan, which funded the study, is 70% Muslim). Those would be unfair criticisms.

That would be an unfair response if the research stands up to scrutiny, but that has yet to be determined. The Discoveroids continue:

No, it appears the only way out for Darwinists would be the “Dawkins Dodge.” You may remember that one from the documentary Expelled, where Dawkins admits the possibility of panspermia for Earth, so long as the designers themselves evolved by a Darwinian process.

It seems a bit early to be looking for “the only way out.” Here’s more:

What’s most notable about this paper is the similarity in design reasoning between the authors and the more familiar advocates of intelligent design theory. No appeals to religion or religious texts; no identifying the designer; just logical reasoning from effect to sufficient cause. The authors even applied the “design filter” by considering chance and natural law, including natural selection, before inferring design.

Yes, that is notable. But although creationists will claim they’re being persecuted, it’s far from the only reason why the paper should be given careful study by those qualified to evaluate it. Big league science isn’t dodge ball. Here’s how the Discoveroids wrap it up:

If Darwinists want to go on equating intelligent design with creationism, they will now have to take on the very secular journal Icarus.

Well! What’s our initial reaction? We’re sorry to disappoint the Discoveroids, but we don’t have any dogma to defend, so our reaction isn’t even close to what they predict. But we are skeptical. The paper’s authors claim they found “precision-type orderliness matching the criteria to be considered an informational signal,” yet they found no actual messages. They say: “The patterns display readily recognizable hallmarks of artificiality,” but then, that’s true of many things in nature — the periodic table of the elements, for example. And let’s not forget that the original Wow! signal turned out to be a false alarm.

Nevertheless, we don’t dismiss the paper. Rather, now that it’s been published, we think the paper’s findings should be reviewed and evaluated by those with expertise in such matters. If the authors’ conclusions are verified, that’s fine with us. In that case, we welcome further research to test their hypothesis. Science is all about evidence, not our preconceptions.

Copyright © 2013. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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26 responses to “Discoveroids: Intelligent Design’s “Wow” Signal?

  1. docbill1351

    If it’s Klinkenhitler it must be Crackpot Tuesday.

    I wonder what those Russkies have been smoking?

    Here’s a little more info from Vlad the Inhaler, the same heady stuff, by the way, published 10 years ago.

    Who knows what this crackpot is spouting off about, certainly an imbecile like Klopperdropper hasn’t a clue, but the piece does give us some insight into Vlad’s musical tastes. Apparently the cossack is a fan of Ten Years After. Play it again, Samski!

  2. docbill1351, I didn’t realize he had been writing about this stuff before. I wonder how he got this paper into Icarus?

  3. docbill1351

    Icarus ain’t all that hot. It has an impact factor of 3 (Nature has an impact factor of 30 by comparison)

    Recall, the Tooters call any journal that publishes something “intelligent design creationism friendly” PRESTIGIOUS, which is a clue right there that it’s more like a parrot cage liner than a rigorous scientific journal.

    What the Tooters try to obscure is that the “genetic code” is all about chemistry and physics and not about “codes” at all.

  4. I was thinking it might be the Icarus April fool’s prank that magazine editors sometimes like to do. I can tell you the blogger on the creationist web site doesn’t understand it. If they did they could explain it instead of regurgitating it. From the abstract I glean that they are saying it is possible to test for messages in DNA. Perhaps they should, though it seems like a waste of time.

  5. thearchaeopteryx

    “And let’s not forget that the original Wow! signal turned out to be a false alarm.”

    Not to be pedantic, but your link to the topic says nothing of the sort. At best, the results are inconclusive. It was not shown positively to be either natural or artificial.

  6. If I remember correctly, Cherbak is a bit of a crank that wrote a paper a few years ago claiming that genomes can be converted to numbers and divisible by 37, therefore, there is planning involved.

    Or something…

  7. docbill1351 says: “Icarus ain’t all that hot.”

    Yeah, but they’re not UFO Digest. They’re a real journal. I’ve been looking around for other stories on this. Often when an interesting paper is published, the press mentions it. There’s nothing on this. I may be the only one (except the Discoveroids) who thought it worth mentioning. But then, that could be because my DNA says “Certified son of Zeus.”

  8. Maybe the DNA says © MMMMIV BC

  9. Perhaps this was published by Icarus because it wasn’t fully understood by the editors. It seems to be out of their area of expertise, which is planetary science.

    The way I read the opening sentences of the abstract, it appears that the authors are trying hard to “sell” it to the editors:

    “It has been repeatedly proposed to expand the scope for SETI, and one of the suggested alternatives to radio is the biological media. Genomic DNA is already used on Earth to store non-biological information.”

    Not wanting to miss out on the chance to publish something that might turn out to be important, they went ahead and published it. Perhaps they didn’t do their homework like docbill did.

  10. docbill1351

    Yeah, Klinklebinkle conveniently omits the creepy, crackpot ideas presented by Vlad the Inhaler that “somehow” 037 is more significant than 37 and that in a really “have you ever looked at your hand” moment Vlad explains that if you take 37 and multiply it by an integer the resulting digits can be summed to equal That Same Integer, thus, Oogity Boogity. So, 37 * 3 = 111. Sum the 1’a and get 3. Boo! Are you scared? You should be! This insanity was supposedly “peer-reviewed,” “new,” “research” but it’s Crank to the nth power.

    Or, as we say, a Krankhoffer.

  11. retiredsciguy says: “Perhaps they didn’t do their homework like docbill did.”

    I didn’t do my homework either, but any molecule with billions of base pairs, all made of the same few atoms, is going to produce a “code” with a lot of repetitive numerical sequences. There’s nothing remarkable about it — it’s inevitable.

  12. docbill1351

    Life, as we call it, is inevitable.

    I am so awesomed by the “fact” that the carbon atoms in my left hand erupted from the death of a star different from the star that produced carbon for my right hand … I look up into the night sky and say to myself, “Thank you. Thank you.” And I feel privileged.

  13. thearchaeopteryx says, “Not to be pedantic, but your link to the topic says nothing of the sort. At best, the results are inconclusive. It was not shown positively to be either natural or artificial.”

    You might be interested in Brian Dunning’s Dec. 25, 2012 Skeptoid article and podcast on the Wow! signal.

    Was the Wow? Signal Alien?

  14. thearchaeopteryx

    Edward, interesting article, thanks. It’s rare to come across a true mystery like this that has scientific backing and that has not been proven to be a hoax/natural phenomenon.

  15. docbill1351

    Using the Hubble Space Telescope they actually traced the “Wow! Signal” back to its source and captured this remarkable footage.

  16. Every time something like this pops up, the creationists break out the fireworks and start celebrating. Real scientists don’t do this.

  17. docbill1351, at least that was only 40 seconds.

  18. Don’t take this article seriously. It is standard crackpot stuff. They use the usual method, which is not the scientific method: you set up two possibilities:

    1. Created by random chance
    2. Created by space aliens

    This is the fallacy of false dichotomy. They set up their desired hypothesis as the DEFAULT hypothesis, which “win” in the event that hypothesis #1 “loses.” This is not the scientific method. The scientific method requires that both hypotheses make testable predictions to be compared with observable data.

    Then they perform dozens of statistical tests on possibility #1 (there are many different kinds of statistical tests that can be run on the same data) and find one that yields an impressively low probability. Running multiple tests on the same data is called “hypothesis fishing.”

    In this case, they found a statistical test that yields a “P-value < 10–13" for possibility #1. Whoop de doo. It is easy, using statistical methods, to get astronomically tiny probabilities. The fact that #1 has been excluded does not logically mean that #2 is proven.

    The scientific method does not use DEFAULT hypotheses. Theology does, however.

    The method used here is in fact very similar to Intelligent Design. I don't mean that as a compliment. Intelligent Design, and this crackpot paper, set up DEFAULT hypotheses, argue negatively, and present negative arguments as if they were positive arguments. This is not the scientific method.

    In reality, there are AT LEAST three hypotheses:

    1. Created by random chance
    2. Created by space aliens
    3. Created by non-random natural process

    The authors computed a tiny probability "P-value < 10–13" for possibility #1, but that by itself gives them NO ABILITY to distinguish between #2 and #3. They just ignore #3 and many other possibilities.

    Very small probabilities must always be compared against the number of parts of events that were multiplied together to make the small probability. Typically very small probabilities involve an assumption that parts or events are independent, so you multiply P1*P2*P3*…. until you get an impressively small number. Impressive to non-statisticians, I mean.

    I have fair experience in bioinformatics and statistics. Trust me. Expressions like "P-value < 10–13" are just not impressive, because they're always arrived at by multiplying together dozens of things as if they were ALLEGEDLY independent probabilities.

    You must ask yourself: how many parts or events were multiplied together to get this "P-value < 10–13"? A dozen? A hundred? Ten thousand? That's not mentioned, is it? Statistically, it's pretty damned important. "P-value < 10–13" could be gotten by multiplying together ten probabilities, each of which is 10%. Big deal.

    With very small probabilities, you must remember that you made assumptions in computing them, and the probability of YOUR ASSUMPTIONS BEING WRONG is astronomically higher than the probability you computed for random chance.

    Even if the authors of this paper are not religious, they are still crackpots.

  19. Errata:

    “Statistically, it’s pretty damned important. “P-value < 10–13" could be gotten by multiplying together THIRTEEN probabilities, each of which is 10%. Big deal.”

    Fixed.

  20. I’m no genetics expert, but can normally understand papers on the topic. I was able to read the whole thing and it seemed like a pile of drivel.

    As far as I can tell they divided up DNA codons into groups based on obscure criteria developed during the early days of genetics. The paper even admits these “did not gain decisive insights.”

    They then manipulated these groups a bit (like dividing it into sets based on the number of unique bases each codon contained) and totaled up the number of nucleons in each resulting set (as far as I can tell a nucleon is a subatomic particle, so I have no what it really has to do with anything). Whenever this resulted in a symmetrical number, or a number with three identical digits, or a number connected to 037 they went “spooky eh?”

    For example

    “The third set includes codons with two identical bases. When halved according to whether they are purines or pyrimidines, regardless of the unique base type, this set shows the balance [of nucleons in each set is] 999 = 999″

    Or at least that is what I made out, the whole thing is a mess.

  21. Discoveroid: “If Darwinists (sic) want to go on equating intelligent design with creationism, they will now have to take on the very secular journal Icarus.”

    Unfortunately, many “Darwinists” will take the bait, instead of exposing the DI’s tired old bait-and-switch. ID is “creationism” in the general sense of “god-of-the-gaps” pseudoscience wrapped in a radical paranoid authoritarian agends. But not “creationism” in any sense of Biblical literalism, young or old earth varieties. Can we ever put that to rest???

    What needs to be shouted is is not how it’s yet another example of the DI “finally” finding design (never mind they claimed to have the “smoking gun” 20 years ago), but how it’s yet another example that the DI’s claims would be absolutely no comfort whatever to Biblical literalists even if they were correct. If they were correct, and they’re not of course, at best they’d vindicate panspermists and refute “creationism” as most people define it.

  22. docbill1351 Icarus ain’t all that hot. It has an impact factor of 3 (Nature has an impact factor of 30 by comparison)

    Looks like their impact factor might slip a notch after publishing this turkey.

  23. @Adam Benton,
    you should cross-post your comment at Sandwalk, where Prof. Larry Moran is ridiculing this very paper, and the Discovernaughts’ touting of it, today.

  24. @Adam Benton: In physics, a “nucleon” means either a neutron or proton. It’s a term typically used when talking about atomic weights, since each atom has a weight equal to the total number of its nucleons minus the mass lost to binding energy.

  25. April Fools!

  26. Hello:

    I read the Icarus article in its entirety at the request of the Icarus editor-in-chief.

    I have an issue or two with the Icarus article.

    Science is about turning over all the rocks, with the presumption that we have no idea what we will find.

    There is to this day a rock that as best I can determine remains unturned involving the blessed Michelson-Morley experiment, for example, and in my mind the science is not complete until that is done.

    In this case, the “rock” involves the possibility of life being engineered here on Earth by other intelligent life that traveled here or perhaps even projected their influence here. Granted, it does not answer the question about how that other intelligent life came to exist (so the evolution/creationism micro-/macro-evolution debate continues to rage).

    But it is still a scenario, and still a rock to be turned. How can we check for that? If we work backward from that assumption, it is reasonable to conclude that they would leave a “signature” in the inert portions of the DNA. That signature could include patterns that can be visualized in some fashion. Presumably, any such encoded pattern would use a “canonical” or distilled-down, pure, format designed to be fairly easily found.

    See the U.S. Patent App: 60/551,123 of March 09, 2004 for, “Canonically Reduced Picture Format (CRPF).” It describes a method for visualizing the Base-4 data in the inert regions of the genome, based on the assumption that visual data was placed there to be discovered. It includes sample Java code for doing your own searching.

    Now, such an exercise is extremely compute-intensive, as you might imagine. There are many variables and so many candidate templates to use for searching the large amount of data. If there is pattern data that is encoded in a more complex way (color map, compression, file format data, image format data, meta-data, etc.) then it becomes harder to correctly decode a pattern.

    Imagine giving a written listing of the binary code for a book that includes some embedded pictures…to a group of scientists in the early 1900’s. They would likely eventually use statistical methods and analyses similar to what our friends from Kazakhstan did, and detect an “intelligent signal.” They would determine that the information was not random and not naturally-occurring. But would they ever find the images? No.

    Would they even find the text? Likely not. Because their presumptions would likely blind them. They would be hard pressed to imagine that entire books could be stored in 1’s and 0’s. And then they would have to correctly figure out the file and text formatting, without the help of computers. They likely would not even look.

    …But get it right, and patterns or images or symbols just might leap out. Is it possible that advanced races could terraform a planet in such a manner? Not merely modifying the climate, but actually engineering at least the starting point for a whole biosphere of species? Perhaps a library from which they can engineer species to match the conditions of a planet?

    Truly the stuff of science fiction, yet if we are honest, it is our secret hope that: a) we are not alone; b) there are beings out there that are magnitudes more advanced than us who will show us the way.

    If we work back from what it is that we hope and want, then this is in fact the very test that we need to invest resources in performing. The SETI model of using screensavers and idle time on thousands of PCs would be great for performing this type of analysis on the human genome.

    We won’t know for sure that nothing is there, until we look.

    P.S. This approach is also discussed in the book, “Scout Report Volume 1: The Rise of the Black Wolf,”