Errors not corrected for three years point to incompetence
By Mark Perakh
Posted October 15, 2007
ABSTRACT
In
2004 William Dembski disseminated an article wherein he introduced an allegedly
novel measure of information he dubbed "Variational Information." This measure was in fact not a novel
quantity but rather a well known (for over forty years) "Rényi divergence of
the 2nd order." When his flop was pointed out, Dembski added to his
article a reference to Rényi. However, the amended version of Dembski's article contained statements
which showed that Dembski not only was not familiar with the widely known and
heavily referenced work of Rényi, but did not grasp its essence even after it
was pointed out to him. In the three years after the amended version of Dembski's article was posted, Dembski has kept
that version posted without any signs of having a second thought. This allows
one to think that no selfcorrection from Dembski is forthcoming. These facts
seem to support the opinion of Dembski as being, in the words of Professor Shallit,
a "pseudomathematician". I
similarly suggested that his mathematical exercises are "quasimathematics." Contrary
to Dembski's claims, it in no way can serve as a "mathematical foundation of
Intelligent Design." Although in
the opinion of ID advocates it contains innovative and useful stuff, all that
is "innovative" there is usually useless, while all that is useful there has
usually been known for a long time.
I
believe it was a famous French philosopher who said that everybody can
make mistakes but only a fool
stubbornly adheres to them. The story I am going to tell now may serve as an
illustration of the above maxim, with a small modification: although the term
"fool" may still (arguably) reflect the situation, the term "incompetent" is
applicable unarguably. The hero of the story is William Dembski.
Professor
Jeffrey O. Shallit is a well known mathematician and computer scientist, the
author of high level mathematical monographs and articles in professional peerreviewed
journals. Naturally when Jeffrey Shallit offers his opinion of the
qualifications of authors of publications in various areas of mathematics, it
has considerable weight and a good chance of being well thought of and strongly
justified. This must be especially true when such an opinion is about the
mathematical prowess of somebody who happened to be at some time in the recent
past a student in a class taught by Professor Shallit.
The
case in point is that of a "leading light" of the intelligent design movement,
William A. Dembski, at present time reportedly a research professor of
philosophy of religion at a Baptist seminary in Texas, who holds PhD degrees in
both philosophy and mathematics. Dembski is considered by ID advocates as the
foremost mathematician within their ranks. His colleagues and acolytes incessantly praise in
superlative terms Dembski's contribution to ID. [1]
A
double doctor (with additional degrees in psychology and religious studies) is
supposed to be an expert at least in the fields of his educational
specialization, in Dembski's case including mathematics. Oddly, Professor
Shallit's professional opinion of DrDr. Dembski seems to be rather
unflattering. Indeed, in Dr.
Shallit's deposition preceding the famous Dover trial, he unequivocally called
Dembski a "pseudomathematician." [2]
While
I can't speak for other readers of Shallit's deposition, I was not surprised in
the least by his low opinion of Dembski as a mathematician. Indeed, in Chapter
1 of my book [3] there is a section wherein I showed Dembski's penchant for
loading his texts with esoteric mathematical notations adding nothing to the
gist of his discourse and seeming to be a device applied solely for the sake of
imbuing his output with a quasimathematical appearance (the text of the
section in question can also be seen online [4]). It goes without saying that
neither Dembski nor any of his supporters has ever admitted the existence of my
comments.
Given
the high esteem in which Dembski is held in by ID advocates (as illustrated by
the references in [1]), they could no more be pleased by Shallit's
characterization of Dembski's mathematical exercises than by my comments
regarding his mathematicallyempty notationsheavy passages. Unfortunately for ID advocates, there
is a shortage of mathematicians of Shallit's status among their "theorists."
Therefore they largely pretend that Shallit's characterization of Dembski's
mathematics does not exist, or at the best let some of their second and
thirdtier soldiers evince a supposed rebuttal (often plainly meaningless) of
Shallit's work (as in the case of Elsberry and Shallit's devastating skewering of Dembski's concept
of "Complex Specified Information"
[5]).
It
seems to be of a certain interest to look for other evidence, independent of
Professor Shallit's or my opinion, which would either support or contradict
Shallit's and my view of Dembski as a mathematician. If Shallit and I are
right, and the supposed mathematical foundation of ID by Dembski is indeed of
no value, this should reflect in a strongly negative way upon the overall
credibility of the intelligent design conceptual system.
In
view of the above, it seems to be instructive to look at a story that took
place in August 2004, when Dembski disseminated an article wherein he claimed
to have invented a novel measure of information.
In
the original version of his paper (soon afterwards removed from the web but not
before it was downloaded and saved by a number of readers) Dembski suggested a
supposedly innovative measure of information he dubbed "variational
information" (VI).
Almost
immediately, responding to Dembski, mathematician Cosma R. Shalizi pointed out
[6] that Dembski's VI is nothing more than a particular case of a well known
(for over 40 years) quantity known as Rényi divergence.
As
a result of Shalizi's comments, Dembski promptly posted an amended version [7] (dated
August 12, 2004) of his paper, where he inserted references to Rényi .
Just
in case that amended version of Dembski's article one day disappears from the
above web location (like the original version did), I have downloaded and saved
it.
So
far so good  a mathematician happened to "reinvent the wheel;" such occurrences
happen sometimes, and not only with mathematicians  see for example an essay
[8]. It was odd, though, that a
supposed expert in this particular field of mathematics was not familiar with
rather famous results by a prominent mathematician Alfréd Rényi, widely
published and heavily referenced for over forty years.
Since
Dembski amended his paper, this could be the end of the story, were it not for
an additional quirk.
I
am a physicist rather than a mathematician. Nevertheless, I could not fail to notice
that the amendment made by Dembski in his article revealed that even after
Shalizi pointed to Rényi's result, Dembski still seemed not only to be unfamiliar
with an important result in his supposed area of expertise, but also seemed to
still simply not comprehend Rényi's work.
For
example, in the Abstract that opens the amended
version of Dembski's paper, we read, among other things, "The resulting
information measure is special case of the Rényi information divergence (also
known as the Rènyi entropy)." (emphasis added).
Let
us look up definitions of Rényi entropy and of Rényi divergence. Although in August 2004 I verified
these definitions by looking up Rényi's own publications, today it seems to be
easiest to look up not Rényi's original publications, but just Wikipedia. [9]
Indeed,
here they are:
Rényi
divergence:
Rényi
entropy is however
In
the above equations α stands for the order of either divergence or entropy; p and q are random variables in two sets with different distributions.
(For
continuous distributions these equations are generalized by replacing sums with
appropriate integrals).
Even
for readers completely unfamiliar with Rényi's work, it is clear just by
looking at the above equations that, contrary to Dembski's assertion cited
above, Rènyi divergence is not "also known as Rényi entropy," because Rényi
divergence and Rényi entropy are two different quantities.
It
looks like, even having accounted for Shalizi's critique and thus in fact
implicitly admitting his insufficient ken in the area of his supposed
expertise, Dembski still has not done his homework fully  he seems not to realize
the difference between the above two quantities, the difference illustrated
even in such a commonly accessible source as Wikipedia.
In
the original version of his paper Dembski did not at all refer to either of
these two quantities, thus creating the impression that he has introduced a
novel type of information measure  variational information. When Shalizi
pointed out that "variational information" is nothing more than the Rényi divergence
of the order of 2 (i.e. when α =2), Dembski amended his
paper but the above quotations from the amended version seem to indicate that
he still does not have an adequate grasp of the matter.
Furthermore,
in a response to Shalizi's comments, which was posted in 2004 at the ARN
website, Dembski tried to downplay the initial lack of references to Rényi . He
still maintained that his paper contributed something of substance to
information theory. With his typical modesty, Dembski did not hesitate to
characterize his own alleged contribution as "admirable."
In
particular, Dembski insisted that his paper was innovative because allegedly
nobody has ever used Rènyi's measures of
the second order. In the amended paper he wrote, "The variational
information, though implicit as a special case in the Rényi information
divergence (r=2) has to date gone largely unnoticed and unappreciated."
(Dembski notation r stands for α
in the above equations).
This
assertion was not true. For example, in a paper by LópezRuiz [10] it was shown
that the quantity introduced by LópezRuiz, Mancini, and Calbet [11] under the
name of "disequilibrium" (which happens to be a measure of a divergence of a
probability distribution from uniformity, thus functioning as another version
of what Dembski suggested as a supposedly novel measure of information) is
closely related to the Rényi entropy of
the second order, via an exponential term.
Hence,
there was little pioneering in Dembski's suggestion of using a second order
version of Rènyi measures  it has been done before. Again, Dembski obviously was not familiar with publications
directly related to his supposed area of expertise.
So
it seems that the epithet "admirable," suggested by Dembski for his own paper,
was not quite adequate for a reasonable evaluation of his own work.
A
natural question to ask is why have I waited over three years before going
public with the above critique? The answer is simple: not to appear to be eager
to pounce upon Dembski at each opportunity; it seemed reasonable to give
Dembski a chance to realize his mistakes and to correct them on his own. In the
three years since Dembski published his error he has kept his "amended" article
posted without any signs of having realized his errors. This allows one to
think that no selfcorrection from Dembski is forthcoming.
This,
in turn, allows one to assert that to all intents and purposes Professor
Shallit was right in defining Dembski as a pseudomathematician and therefore that
all the alleged "Mathematical foundation of Intelligent design" so vigorously
and triumphantly trumpeted by Dembski and his acolytes, is pseudomathematics.
It can't serve as a foundation of any reasonable conceptual set. Although in
the opinion of ID advocates it contains innovative and useful stuff, in fact
all that is "innovative" there is usually useless (like the confusion of Rényi
divergence with Rényi entropy), while all that is useful there has usually been
known for a long time (like Rényi divergence of the 2nd order).
As
has been pointed out more than once, by various authors [12], the "theory" of
intelligent design is scientifically empty. Elementary errors, sometimes
reluctantly admitted, but more often never admitted at all, are expected even
from the best educated ID practitioners like William Dembski, not to mention
his lesser admirers and followers.
References and Notes
1.
Statements claiming that William Dembski is a firstrank mathematician are
common in ID literature. Perhaps the most exaggerated of these accolades was
produced by an ID advocate, professor of philosophy Rob Koons in a blurb to
Dembski's book "Intelligent Design" (InterVarsity Press, 1999) where Koons
referred to Dembski as "the Isaac Newton of information theory," and "one of
the most important thinkers of our time." Michael Behe, in the foreword to the same book by Dembski, claimed that
the future development of science will be based on design and hence on the "theoretical
foundation of Bill Dembski's work." (page 12 in Dembski's book). Similar
assertions can be found in the publications of many other ID advocates.
2.
Shallit, Jeffrey O. "Expert Report under Federal
Rule of Civic Procedure 26." (See http://www2.ncseweb.org/kvd/experts/shallit.pdf Accessed on Oct. 6, 2007.
3. Mark Perakh, Unintelligent
Design. Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY 2003 (pages 2628).
4. Mark Perakh. "A Consistent Inconsistency." in Talk Reason (see http://www.talkreason.org/articles/dembski.cfm). Accessed on
October 6, 2007
5. Elsberry, Wesley R and Jeffrey O. Shallit., "Information Theory,
evolutionary computation, and Dembski's complex specified information" (see http://www.talkreason.org/articles/eandsdembski.pdf). Accessed on Oct. 6, 2007.
6. Shalizi, Cosma R. "William Dembski and
the Discovery Institute, Renewing Science and Culture by ReInventing the Wheel." (See http://www.cscs.umich.edu/~crshalizi/weblog/234.html). Accessed on Oct. 6, 2007).
7. Dembski, William A. "Information as a Measure of Variation". (See http://www.iscid.org/boards/ubbget_topicf10t000086.html). Accessed on Oct. 6, 2007).
8. Perakh, Mark. "Reinventing the wheel." In Talk Reason (see http://www.talkreason.org/articles/wheel.cfm). Accessed on Oct. 6, 2007.
9. Wikipedia article on Rényi quantities is found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/R%C3%A9nyi_entropy.
10. LópezRuiz, Ricardo. "Shannon Information, LMC complexity and Rényi
entropies: a straightforward approach" (See http://arxiv.org/PS_cache/nlin/pdf/0312/0312056.pdf), Dec 22, 2003.
11. LópezRuiz, R., H. L. Mancini, and X. Calbet. "A Statistical Measure
of Complexity." Phys. Lett., A209,
321326 (1995)
12. Critique of Dembski's output, including his mathematical exercises,
is found in multiple publications, including the above referenced Shallit's
deposition (ref. 2), ElsberryShallit's essay on Complex Specified Information
(ref. 5), posts by Richard Wein and other authors on Talk Reason website (http://www.talkreason.org/), posts on Mark ChuCarroll's blog "Good math bad math," many posts on The Panda's Thumb blog (http://www.pandasthumb.org), in my book
(ref. 3) as well as in the book by Niall Shanks, (God, the Devil and Darwin, Oxford Univ. Press, 2004); in the
anthology Why Intelligent Design Fails,
(eds Matt Young and Taner Edis, Rutgers Univ. Press, 2004) and many other
sources (many available via Amazon online bookstore).
Matt Young, Paul Gross, and Wesley Elsberry provided helpful comments on the draft of this essay, which are appreciated.
