Discoveroids: Misinformation about Information

You know about the Discovery Institute’s claim that the universe is comprised of some kind of supernatural pixie-dust they call “information,” about which we wrote Phlogiston, Vitalism, and Information.

Despite the intentional similarity in terminology, the magical phenomenon the Discoveroids call information has nothing to do with information theory, which Wikipedia says is “considered to have been founded in 1948 by Claude Shannon.” No one can detect Discoveroid information with the instruments of science, yet they claim they can somehow sense its presence by using William Dembski’s Design Inference, commonly called his Design Filter. We wrote about it here: The Discoveroids and Their Magic Filter.

As the Discoveroid dogma has evolved, it appears that the principal function of their intelligent designer — blessed be he! — is to make things complicated. To do that he adds the mystical ingredient of information. They say it’s not matter, not energy, not anything you know. It’s information! And it’s a big deal. It permeates the entire universe. It’s in your DNA. And only the Discoveroids can detect its presence.

But they’ve just received — or misappropriated — a big gift, thanks to some unfortunate language in a paper published in PLOS Biology, a peer-reviewd journal. The article is sensibly titled: An Estimate of the Total DNA in the Biosphere. You can read it online without a subscription. The abstract says:

Modern whole-organism genome analysis, in combination with biomass estimates, allows us to estimate a lower bound on the total information content in the biosphere: 5.3 × 1031 (±3.6 × 1031) megabases (Mb) of DNA. Given conservative estimates regarding DNA transcription rates, this information content suggests biosphere processing speeds exceeding yottaNOPS values (1024 Nucleotide Operations Per Second). Although prokaryotes evolved at least 3 billion years before plants and animals, we find that the information content of prokaryotes is similar to plants and animals at the present day. This information-based approach offers a new way to quantify anthropogenic and natural processes in the biosphere and its information diversity over time.

Note that they refer to “anthropogenic and natural processes.” That seems to refer to both man-caused and naturally occurring complexity. We’ll get back to that in a moment.

The Discoveroids have seized upon the paper’s use of the word “information” to claim that it’s about their designer’s magic pixie-dust. This new article appears at their creationist blog, without a byline: Earth’s Biosphere Is Awash in Information. Here are some excerpts, with bold font added by us:

Visualize an exoplanet far away: dynamic, comfortable, yet lifeless. It has water, plate tectonics, volcanoes, an atmosphere and all the ingredients for life — but no life. What would be the primary factor distinguishing it from Earth? A new paper in PLOS Biology suggests that its chief drawback, all things being equal, would be a lack of complex specified information.

BWAHAHAHAHAHA! No, the paper doesn’t “suggest” anything about what the Discoveroids call specified complexity. Wikipedia says:

Specified complexity is what Dembski terms an “explanatory filter” which can recognize design by detecting “complex specified information” (CSI).

Let’s read on in the Discoveroid blog post:

As a side note, they never explain their odd distinction between “natural” and “anthropomorphic” (are humans not natural?). Their last sentence just says, “This approach may help us understand the changing complexity of the biosphere over time and to predict in new ways, both anthropogenic and natural, future changes in the biosphere.” Apparently even typical astrobiologists have an intuitive sense of human exceptionalism.

BWAHAHAHAHAHA! No, as we read it, the paper implies that other than human-caused complexity, all the rest occurs naturally — i.e., without our intervention. The Discoveroids then proceed to weave their own dogma into the published paper’s statements, but their efforts are so contrived and tortured that we’re going to skip most of it. Here’s another excerpt:

The rest of the paper discusses how the researchers arrived at their numbers and how the values might have varied over time. (They estimated that the information content in prokaryotes, the simplest organisms, is similar to that of higher organisms — within two orders of magnitude, which they found surprising.) They also include caveats about assumptions and uncertainties in their measurements and offer suggestions for answering future questions. The whole paper is very interesting.

It’s particularly interesting because the paper is talking about something real and identifiable. It says: “In calculating the total amount of DNA, we are assuming that every base pair is a unique piece of information.” That’s totally unlike the Discoveroids’ pixie-dust information which they’ve never even attempted to quantify, or meaningfully define. They continue:

But the damage is done. Even if their estimates need to be revised by a terabase or two some day, they have made it clear that our biosphere is awash in information.

BWAHAHAHAHAHA! Yes, the biosphere is “awash in information” (DNA base pairs) but that’s not the Discoveroids’ magical version of information. Here’s one final excerpt:

Though clearly evolutionists, they have presented a significant challenge to scientific materialism to account for all this processing power. Simultaneously, they demonstrate the fruitfulness of an information-based approach to the investigation of life.

So there you are. A published paper that merely estimates the amount of information contained in the world’s DNA has been transformed by the Discoveroids into confirmation of their own kind of magic information, which is created only by their supernatural designer. In the future, they’ll probably include the PLOS Biology paper in their listing of peer-reviewed papers that support their “theory” of intelligent design.

Copyright © 2015. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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19 responses to “Discoveroids: Misinformation about Information

  1. But of course information is a function of the distribution of matter and energy within space and time, not some magical phenomenon which requires a supernatural explanation.

    In any case, as I’ve explained elsewhere, my view is that “supernatural” is a meaningless noise, not a word, since by definition “nature” consists of everything there is.

  2. michaelfugate

    Presidential candidate, governor, Fox talk-show host, Southern Baptist minister, etc. Mike Huckabee claims SCOTUS overthrew nature with its decision on marriage equality. Does this mean SCOTUS has supernatural powers?

  3. Diogenes' Lamp

    By this definition of “information”, a bacteria splitting in two creates many megabytes of “information.”

    As I have said before, the overwhelming majority of information in the universe is created by natural processes. When crestionists/ID proponents say no natural process can create information, they are either lying or pulling bait and switch.

    Since almost all information is created by natural processes, when we find information in biology, we should assume a priori that biology was created by natural processes, unless and until extraordinary evidence proves otherwise.

  4. Also note

    ” a new way to quantify anthropogenic and natural processes in the biosphere.”
    You can only quantify within a framework of methodological naturalism, ie the scientific materialism the IDiots aspire to overthrow in their wedge document. At this point it’s safe to predict that the IDiots are going to lie their asses off.

    A prediction that came true as soon as they claimed the article is about CSI.

  5. Dear Curmudgeon, a slight but significant correction to your post:
    yottaNOPS are 10^24 Nucleotide Operations Per Second, not 1024. And I reserve the possibility that I may have comments about the ID guys when I’ve finished reading the PLOS paper.

  6. abeastwood, I cut & pasted directly from the abstract.

  7. After reading the PLOS article, I think it is interesting that the Discoveroids don’t comment on the fact that, although the biosphere is “awash in information”, prokaryotes, and among eukaryotes, plants, contain several orders of magnitude more than animals (and I’d estimate the total animal amount is several orders of magnitude more than the amount for humans). So once again, it clear that if the Discoveroids favorite sky fairy (blessed be his/her/its name) scattered all that information about, he/she/it put much more effort into information for things that are not what the Discoveroids think is his/her/its favorite organism!

  8. Dear Crumudgeon, when you cut and paste, usually the formatting codes that make the 24 an exponent don’t copy. Trust me, yotta anything is 10^24 of them.

  9. Or, you can probably insert the HTML code “”: 1024

  10. You’re right, abeastwood. I don’t know what I was thinking. It’s all fixed now. Thanks.

  11. Ah, I see the problem. For some reason that standard HTLM code gets ignored by WordPress. Maybe you have to use unicode in WordPress to get superscripts and subscripts, but I won’t play it any longer.

  12. Diogenes’ Lamp said:
    “By this definition of “information”, a bacteria splitting in two creates many megabytes of “information.”

    In your example, and so many like it, isn’t the “information” simply duplicated and if so, then it, and likewise other “splittings” and/or “breeding” result in a duplication of existing information. Genetic change is tweeking of “information” via mutations and different uses of the same information, yes? Or am I wrong?

  13. Let us assume that there is a well-defined quantity that the ID people have identified.
    Why should we think that there is conservation of that quantity?
    The ID people accept that the quantity can spontaneously decrease.
    Is there a way of testing that it cannot spontaneously increase?
    Actually, the ID people have pointed out that a human agency can cause an increase. Can we think of any other conserved quantity for which human agency is exempt?
    Moreover, the ID people tell us that living things are also exempt.

    The obvious conclusion is that this quantity can just as well increase, as well as decrease, spontaneously.

  14. Eric Lipps wrote:
    In any case, as I’ve explained elsewhere, my view is that “supernatural” is a meaningless noise, not a word, since by definition “nature” consists of everything there is.

    “Since by definition…” only constitutes a valid argument if standard English language lexicons agree with you. They do not. Claiming “Nature consists of everything there is” constitutes a legitimate opinion–but justifying it on the basis of “by definition” is not a true statement.

    This fact is not a matter of theist or atheist point of view on a matter. It is a fact of honest lexicography. Words have meanings as assigned by a culture within a society. And even atheist philosophers deal in all sorts of concepts which are outside of the natural matter-energy universe, a universe which is by definition what nature actually is. That which is outside of the natural matter-energy world is not just a reference to deities, demons, and Discovery Channel documentaries. For example, some mathematicians and philosophers consider numbers and mathematical concepts as based on Platonic ideals which exist independently and outside of nature. (And, of course, many others do not.)

    Therefore, nature is not “by definition” everything there is–unless you mean literally “every thing” as in every microgram of matter in the universe, in which case you would simply be stating the obvious: that nature consists of all of the matter in the universe.

    Of course, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. And that is why “nature is all there is” is not obvious, whether “by definition” or otherwise. There could be other universes, for example, that are in no way like “the nature” we know. That is, those universes may not involve matter and energy and the laws of physics as we know them may not operate there, so they would not be considered “just more nature.” They would be truly “supernatural”.

  15. Steven Thompson

    David K, it’s not entirely clear (at least to me) whether they mean, by “every base pair,” literally every base pair (so that two E. coli constitute twice the information of one E. coli), or whether they mean that an entire monoclonic colony of E. coli (whose members are genetically identical to one another, barring mutations) has no more information than the single bacterium the colony started as.

    But even on the second meaning, every gene duplication does what creationists and ID proponents say it cannot: “add information” (since the individual genome now has more base pairs, hence more information). Furthermore, although creationists insist that most mutations cause loss of information, by the definition used in the paper, only mutations that delete part of the genome can cause loss of information; all other mutations (single nucleotide substitutions, translocations, retroviral insertions, etc.) either leave the amount of information constant or increase it.

  16. Let me suggest that even if one accepts the idea that the natural is all that there is, that does not mean that it is true by a matter of definition, or that the supernatural (or nonnatural or subnatural? – is there such a word?) is therefore meaningless.
    For a noun to have meaning, it is not needed that it denote something. That is the fallacy of reification or hypostatization. Ironically, it is usually resorted to by those who are trying to prove the reality of something immaterial – like “information”.

  17. The IDiot writer of the DI article preached:

    “Apparently even typical astrobiologists have an intuitive sense of human exceptionalism.”

    How on Earth did the IDiot writer of the DI article come up with that from what is said in that paper? That IDiot writer would do well as a stage magician, since he’s good at pulling ridiculous things from his ass.

  18. Oh oh, we’re starting to discuss definitions now.
    There is logically nothing wrong with defining nature as “our Universe and everything within it” (note: evt. replace with Multiverse) and the supernatural as “everything beyond the Universe (evt. Multiverse)”, whatever beyond means. These definitions can be perfectly used to argue that there is not something like a supernatural reality.

  19. Calculating the amount of base pairs of DNA in the environment as an estimate of the “information” existing in our biosphere has an interesting implication. Perhaps it really is all about “information”, in the form of DNA molecules, and the organisms that contain DNA are simply there to facilitate the replication of the DNA molecule and the resulting increase in information. DNA is a molecule, after all, not some magic computer program. If the molecule happens to contain the right base pairs in the right positions, and is folded the right way, it will react with other molecules in such a way as to precipitate a chain reaction resulting in a cell, and in much more infrequent circumstances, a chain reaction resulting in multiple cells that react with each other to form a larger more complex organism. It is the DNA molecule itself, rather than the organism that contains it, that is important. This is somewhat the idea in “The Selfish Gene”.

    I suspect the DI is not thinking in this way when they write about “information.” However, if “information” is their criteria for detecting design, and “information” consists of base pairs of the DNA molecule arranged in ways that produce organisms, then “design” must therefore be all about creating successful paths for DNA molecules to proliferate. The organisms are secondary.

    Perhaps that’s what they want taught in public schools.