# Dazzling the innumerate

I was sent the following argument by email.

A new breed of ID is in the process of supplanting the former fact-free versions on U.S. university
campuses. The new breed looks like this (from recent lectures on several University of California
campuses):

The following design argument does not require evolution to produce a specific result. It calculates the probability that evolution reaches a certain level of biological complexity (measured in terms of the number of protein-coding genes) and compares this probability with the number of trials available for evolution to that level.

Any of the thousands of extant vertebrate species possesses at least 10,000 more protein-coding genes than the primordial single-celled organism from which all these vertebrate species evolved. Thus, at least 10,000 protein-coding genes must have been added during the course of vertebrate evolution. Assuming that the probability is 10-3 that a new gene useful for vertebrate evolution came into existence, the probability that evolution just happened to produce any one of the vertebrate species is 10-3 multiplied by itself 10,000 times, which equals 10-30,000.

To avoid concluding that God exists, 1030,000 evolution-supporting planets must now exist or have existed in the past, which requires: (A) a single large universe with that many planets, each of which exhibits some stage of evolution from the primordial soup up to vertebrates, or (B) nearly that many small universes, each of which has a few such planets, or (C) a small universe with a few such planets that had undergone nearly that many Big Crunches and subsequent Big Bangs. Regarding (A), only a few hundred extra-solar planets have been detected so far. Since it becomes more difficult to detect a planet the further from the earth it is, we can safely conclude that there is no way that even an insignificant fraction of 1030,000 evolution-supporting planets will be detected within the next few decades. The speed at which light reaches us and the speed at which electrons move through semiconductors in our computers impose fundamental limits on the speed at which even the best equipment can operate. Suppose this equipment can identify a new planet every pico-second (10-12 seconds), which is an outrageous rate far beyond present or conceivable technology. This still means that we must wait 1029,980 years to identify the number of planets needed for the chance hypothesis. Regarding (B), the unambiguous detection of a few other universes is presently considered difficult work, if it can be done at all, not to mention observing life on planets within those universes (Aguirre A. et al, “Towards Observable Signatures of Other Bubble Universes,” E-published 20 September 2007, Physical Review D.). Even if we had equipment capable of identifying a suitable planet in another universe every pico-second, we would still have to wait 1029,980 years to verify the existence of the number of evolution-supporting planets required for the chance hypothesis. Regarding (C), even if each pico-second we could verify that our universe had, in the past, undergone a cycle of Big Crunch and subsequent Big Bang, we would still have to wait 1029,980 years to verify the existence of the number of cycles required for the chance hypothesis. This means that the chance hypothesis is effectively unverifiable.

It’s pathetically bogus. Shall we take it apart?

The first paragraph is just weird. It’s an admission that prior formulations are fact free (and I agree!), but it tries to suggest that the following argument will contain facts. It will not.

The second paragraph is also non-specifically inane. It’s another admission: their argument will not be using any of the principles of evolution, and therefore it will have nothing to say about evolution — and the absence of any of the mechanisms of evolution that make it something more than simple random chance completely invalidates their line of reasoning.

Now we get into the substance of their claim. The premise is superficially legitimate: a reasonable number of genes for some single-celled organisms is about 5000, a reasonable number for many multicellular animals is about 15,000, so OK — the question is whether it is conceivable that there was an increase in gene number by about 10,000 in the evolution of animals. Well, sure. A tripling of gene number in half a billion years isn’t that big a deal, especially when you consider that simple polyploidy can do that in a single generation. It also overlooks the fact that there is wide variation and overlap in gene number within and between single-celled organisms and animals. What this creationist is setting up is a non-issue…and then it gets worse.

What is this 10-3 number, and where did it come from? It doesn’t make any sense! It’s saying that a new gene will be added with a probability of 1 in a thousand…what? Individuals? Populations? Per year, per generation? All I can guess from the context is that he is actually proposing this is an instantaneous probability of a newly generated individual having a new gene — he isn’t going to consider either time or the number of individuals in a population, two factors that are rather important in evolution. Just poof, the chance of a new gene in a single new individual is 10-3. This is not correct. The probability of some unspecified mutation in any one individual is basically a certainty. The probability of a gene duplication or a new initiation site is going to be lower, obviously, but it’s irrelevant — this creationist is plucking random numbers out of his butt to put up a pretense of quantifiability, but it’s still an exercise in creative invention.

Say, wasn’t this supposed to be the factual ID argument?

The next step is outright idiocy. Let’s give him his imaginary probability of one in a thousand. Let’s be even more generous and suggest that a population only adds one new gene every thousand years. How would you calculate the time it would take to add 10,000 genes to the species’ repertoire? Basic math: divide 10,000 genes by 1 gene per 10,000 years, and you should get an answer of 10 million years. That isn’t so hard. This kook doesn’t do that, though: he suggests that the probability is 10-310000, a number that you would only get if you what you are calculating is the probability that an individual has 10,000 independent gene creation events in one reproductive event — just blam, all at once, 10,000 brand new, functional genes magically appear in a newborn organism. That calculation is correct if that’s how you assume animals evolved from bacteria, in one abrupt swoop of vastly improbable hocus-pocus. That is not how it occurred, of course, and no one but dumbass creationists would propose that it was. What happened was incremental addition and selection over long periods of time, a gradual and stepwise process.

This is nothing new. It’s the same stupid (and soundly refuted) argument that creationists have been making for decades.

The rest of the argument spins off into further cockamamie blitherings. Assessing the probabilities of evolutionary events over the course of history on Earth does not depend on surveying alien worlds. What this really is is an excuse to wander off into science-fiction absurdities to make evolution look less likely by association, and to throw around more impressively huge numbers…never mind that they are based on uninformed guesses and a compounding of errors. This is all a bad argument, designed to bamboozle the innumerate with a cloud of bogus numbers.

I have to make a concession here. I don’t think even the clowns at the Discovery Institute would be stupid enough to push an argument this wretchedly incompetent. If we take the opening paragraph at face value, it implies that the rationale for ID is getting even dumber than it has been in the past.

1. hje says

“First, assume a spherical cow…”

2. Azkyroth says

Has anyone tried putting this into a graph format?

3. He’s in possession of the magical number hat.

He can pull ANY number he wants from it to make his point.

I once had the magical number hat and tried it with my credit card company. They didn’t fall for it either.

4. info_dump says

I don’t think even the clowns at the Discovery Institute would be stupid enough to push an argument this wretchedly incompetent.

I wouldn’t put it past many of them.

5. says

That was really really bad. Do they hope that by throwing a lot of big numbers around that people will be overawed by it?

When oh when will they stop throwing the dichotomy around that it’s either chance or God? Chance has nothing to do with it. No matter how many times a 6-sided die is rolled, it won’t come up with anything but the numbers on it’s face.

6. Jason says

The argument in short:

Step 1: Make up a very small number
Step 2: Evolution is false because the aforementioned number is small
QED: Santa Jesus made the universe

7. says

The answer is 42, no? :P

8. HappyKiwi says

The more desperate IDiots get the more preposterous they become. As growing numbers of intelligent people reject religious indoctrination, hard core kooks seem increasingly strident and ridiculous. With luck this bozo will be the catalyst for more thinking Christians to ask themselves hard questions.

9. Matti says

The scary thing is that this logical fallacy would convince the casual onlooker by the apparent “facts” that they construe from the ether…

scary

10. says

(from recent lectures on several University of California campuses)

Probably another Lie For Jesus™. Any mention as to which UC campuses? (I didn’t think so.) And whather the venue was in the School of Mathematics or in a Sunday School room in the basement of a fundagelical church near campus?

You’re right – I don’t think even Dumbski is this dim.

11. Kevin says

The function of the Discovery Institute is such that for any stupid creationist argument epsilon, there exists an ID argument delta such that

delta is stupider than epsilon.

Hmmm I think that proves something…

or is it ID(delta) < epsilon?

12. Michael says

So he basically claims that when two ducks mate it is equally likely that the result is a slightly different duck or a croco-duck or an elephant…

13. FactsDontMatter says

I agree with Matti… Yes, this argument will be more than enough for many people. Average intelligence is not very bright, and half the population is dumber than that. And it seems to be getting worse!

14. hje says

“You’re right – I don’t think even Dumbski is this dim.”

I don’t know about that–this might just fly over at UD.

15. says

There’s a new breed of intelligent design? I don’t see a difference …

16. Bill Dauphin says

Has anyone tried putting this into a graph format?

Will this do?

17. Holbach says

The pathetic morons are still hoping to outwit evolution and science. They may come up with many reasons to prove that their imaginary god exists, but if it just cannot be, then it never will be. If they cannot get their god to appear, then why don’t they just drop all this insanity and just get on with the short lives which evolution and the Universe has unsconsciously prescribed? I am content and accept our origins in the Universe and need not add to it something non-existing and unnecessary.

18. Jochen Bedersdorfer says

And what the author of this proof totally forgot: Even if this would refute evolution by natural selection, that doesn’t make their Goddidit “alternative” one bit more true.

19. James F says

“To avoid concluding that God exists…”

At least it’s up front about who the designer is. Otherwise, it’s as scientific as what usually comes out of the DI.

20. qetzal says

Actually, I think his claim is worse than PZ suspects. I think he’s claiming that the probability of adding one gene some time in the billion years between unicellular and multicellular organisms is 1:1000. Get it? P(one new gene) = 10^-3 per billion years! P(2 new genes) = 10^-6 per billion years. P(10,000 new genes = 10^-30,000 per billion years.

And yet, we’ve seen many new genes appear just in the few decades that we’ve had the tools to look. More proof of ID! Halleluja and amen!

21. Alan Chapman says

The email is completely awash in logical fallacies.

22. peter says

I started studiously– beginning my analysis by listing out mistaken assumptions. I wrote down things like this:

In the third paragraph their formula assumes 10,000 tries at making a beneficial gene… no more… no less. If there were in fact 10 million tries at generating a beneficial gene (with p = 0.001) then the probability of getting at least 10,000 is about 50% (pbinom(10000, 0.001, lower.tail = FALSE) for those who speak R)…

Then I thought about gene duplications and then natural selection and then varying population size; and it went on and on… and I grew tired. Upon reviewing the seventh mistaken hypothesis… I rested.

23. says

One of my favourite SF writers, John Varley, once wrote that the idea of Intelligent Design can be refuted with a single word: testicles. Works for me.

24. Allow me to respond. In brief, argument based on false premise that evolutionary process entirely a result of chance. All else that follows is window dressing—kind of like a lace doily on a turd.

25. Epikt says

Isn’t this just an obfuscated version of the tornado in a junkyard argument?

I think the way this is written, the author isn’t assuming that 10^-3 is any kind of instantaneous probability, but rather the probability that each new gene is (independently) added to the genome during the period of evolution of the species. If you assume each addition has that probability during the species’ evolutionary history, and assume that all the additions are uncorrelated, you get the 10^-30,000 number. But why assume those events are uncorrelated? If I correctly understand what I’ve read here over that past months, that’s not true. And that 10^-3 number has got to be pure fiction.

Really, this looks like a retarded version of the Drake equation–some of the quantities in that are fairly well known, but others are not–not even the order of magnitude is known for some of them. You can get pretty much whatever answer you want out of it by substituting one unsupported guess for another.

(I see qetzal is essentially making the same argument I did.)

26. Enkidu says

Anyone who has played draw poker should understand the mathematical flaws in the argument (if I understand the argument myself . . . it’s kinda hard to read).

Being dealt a royal flush is exceedingly unlikely. Dealing out a hundred hands does not make it likely. But when you can discard one to four cards and replace them, the odds get much better. If you get to repeat the discard-and-replace maneuver indefinitely, a royal flush becomes a statistical certainty very quickly. This is what evolution does. It keeps the changes that work and discards those that don’t.

Moreover, evolution isn’t constrained by a predetermined goal like my example of a royal flush in poker. There is an infinite number of good hands evolution might find in the game of “Procreation.” As Dr, Dawkins would put it, “Becoming an ancestor is the only measure of success.”

27. peter says

Ooops..
pbinom(10000,10000000,0.001,lower.tail=FALSE)
is what I meant… though between reading the comments and writing my own the issues was dealt with quite satisfactorily.

28. Luis says

Paul Burnett (#10):

“Any mention as to which UC campuses? (I didn’t think so.)”

I’m a postdoc at UC Santa Cruz, and I haven’t heard of anything like this happening here -though, to be fair, I haven’t been going up to campus that often this past month (job interviews, moving house, new teahouse downtown with pretty waitresses…).

29. Step 1: Make up a very small number
Step 2: Evolution is false because the aforementioned number is small
QED: Santa Jesus made the universe

Ho ho ho. Step 2 would follow from Step 1 if evolution was in fact an improbable event—which it isn’t. Frankly, it seems to me that given selection and a big universe (10^11 stars in this galaxy alone) the evolution of life seems inevitable.

The conclusion, however, would not follow even if both Steps 1 and 2 were. The improbability of evolution, if demonstrated, would not prove that a Designer must exist.

But then, see my post at #25 above.

30. Feynmaniac says

PZ gets the all entertaining junk mail. All I get is spam offering to make my penis larger.

31. Patrick says

Statistically, fifty percent of all people are of below average intelligence. These big numbers are aimed to put the lower half in awe. Nothing more, nothing less. They can’t persuade the upper half so that means they are targeting the others. It’s just marketing. They know their targeted demographic isn’t up to reasoning it out.

32. says

Being dealt a royal flush is exceedingly unlikely.” – Enkidu, #27

But that doesn’t mean that if you have been dealt a royal flush that you should throw the cards back because it couldn’t have happened…does it?

33. says

The anthropologist Levi-Strauss tells how the headman of a totally illiterate South American tribe he was studying saw him writing field notes one day. Shortly thereafter, the headman made a big show of making squiggles on a piece of paper, apparently to impress the other natives by the ritual–the guy obviously how no clue about how writing actually worked or what it was for. The tendency of fundamentalists to throw around big words and include fabricated mathematics in their propaganda is a similar phenomenon.

34. Holbach says

Patrick @ 33

So blatant but true, and no sappy platitudes about equality will diminish that fact. Sort of the rabble old P T Barnum counted among his endeavors.

35. Grape Ape says

Nine times unicorns are mentioned in the bible. NINE TIMES! How much more fairy tale does it get?

36. Benjamin Franklin says

See-

The Biologic lab is coming out with earth shaking stuff!

37. Roman says

What’s with the elementary probability? Why not work with markov processes? Oh,wait! That’s right! Correct applied mathematics don’t support creationism.

38. Rachel Walmsley says

I’m amazed that nobody so far has commented on the stupendous bogosity of the “we haven’t counted them so they must not exist!” argument about extrasolar planets.

It’s a bit like going to a beach and saying “Grains of sand are really small. It would take lots of grains to fill up a whole beach. I can’t possibly count that many, so therefore the beach must not exist.”

39. Brain Hertz says

He’s in possession of the magical number hat.

He can pull ANY number he wants from it to make his point.

I think that’s about right… except that it isn’t a hat.

I think it’s quite telling that he doesn’t even realize how absurdly large his made up numbers are.
There are only 10^80 ATOMS in our universe, and he is concerned with the amount of time it would take to find 10^30000 planets.

41. NO FE says

I am very bad with numbers and yet even I could see the idiocy in that email. However how can a person with low math skills refute that? What counter points can I make?

42. melior says

or (B) nearly that many small universes, each of which has a few such planets

OK, just to play along, suppose I take his choice B) then. I’d love to see how he’s going to show evidence that zillions of small universes don’t exist. There’s no more or less evidence for this than there is for the original ID theory’s Magic Fairy.

And since they could all exist in parallel, his ridiculous age-of-the-universe argument doesn’t help him a bit.

43. says

Posted by: Romeo Vitelli | #24 –
“One of my favourite SF writers, John Varley, once wrote that the idea of Intelligent Design can be refuted with a single word: testicles. Works for me.”

He’s on the right track but I prefer to say “bollocks” – it’s just that much more satisfying.

Andy

44. reverted says

When are creationists ever going to understand the enormous difference between saltation and evolution?

Or recognize that Natural Selection is decidedly NONrandom?

Or that mutations operate in parallel, not serially (nor non-cumulatively), and that they are also selected-for in parallel?

Or that poking holes (well, trying to) in someone else’s theory does NOT strengthen one’s own ‘theory’?

Or…

BLEH!

45. natural cynic says

G I G O

46. Lago says

The main flaw I see, out of the numerous ones present, is that it assumes evolution did not happen when arguing against it happening. The very process of evolution which develops and modifies genes over time is removed from the math, and, by doing so, makes a statement that the creatures basically arrived fully formed.

The reality is, they are arguing that creationism only makes sense with a designer, and they are avoiding evolutionary mechanisms that supplanted such ideologies over a hundred years ago…

47. Christophe Thill says

I may be wrong, but doesn’t it look like a cruder version of Behe’s argument in “The Edge of Evoution”?

48. Bill Dauphin says

He’s on the right track but I prefer to say “bollocks”

In the U.S., though, most folks’ll just think you’re talking about a Sex Pistols album. (Unless they watch BBC America, that is.)

49. Micke says

Bah…

I’d like to see him calculate how long it would take an intelligence to make up 15000 amino acid sequences, determine their 3-dimensional structure and how they interact with other molecules, and then make it so all the 15000 proteins the intelligence designed were more or less needed for an individual to live, and were able to perform a reaction 10^6 times per second (Maybe they can start off with that, they seem to like exponentiation). A week or so right?

I’ll be in my lab in the meantime, bye.

50. Wayne Robinson says

A few years ago, I read in one of the British newspapers (I think it was the Telegraph) about a man who won first division in Lotto. And then incredibly, continued playing with the same combination of numbers, and won first division again 5 months later. The journalist went on to state that the chances of winning first division with the numbers the man put in each week was 5 million to one against, and therefore the chances of him winning twice was 25 (British) billion to one against.
But it happened. Therefore impossible things can easily happen.
Of course, the journalist had just fallen for the intuitive common sense logic, which is completely wrong. 5 million to one against are the odds of playing Lotto just once and winning. 25 billion to one against are the odds of playing Lotto just twice and winning both times.
You can actually calculate the true figures relatively easily. Once someone has won Lotto, there is a 50:50 chance of the same combination coming up in about 15,000 years (the chance of NOT winning after n games is 4999999/5000000 to the power n). But after each game, there is a new winning combination which could win again (4999999 in the top line would decrease by one each game), and this means that there would be a 50:50 chance of someone winning twice in (I estimate) about 30 years (assuming all the winners keep on playing with their same winning combination).
It’s still amazing for it to have occurred in just 5 months, but not as incredible as implied in the article. And it did happen.
The IDiot has just fallen (probably deliberately) for the same trap, or rather has gone from the unwarranted assumption to the inevitable conclusion.

51. Bill Dauphin says

Statistically, fifty percent of all people are of below average intelligence.

Let’s just note that this may not be true: Assuming you mean average in its common usage (i.e., the arithmetic mean, as opposed to the median), it may not be true that half the data points are on each side of “average.”

For example, imagine a class of 5 students who take a test. 4 of the students were out drinking the night before, and they all get grades of 25, but the other (damn brown-noser nerd) student studied instead and aces the test with a grade of 100. The class average is (25+25+25+25+100)/5=40… which means that 80%, not 50%, of the individual scores are below average.

Of course, assuming a large population in which intelligence is more or less normally distributed, your statement is probably more or less true (anyone have any data?)… but this thread is about innumeracy, so I’m jus’ sayin’.

;^)

52. Scrabcake says

I’m thinking they’re hoping people will get bored before reading the whole thing. Eyes. Glazed Over. After first paragraph.
Hey! It’s maths! Let’s teach this in maths class!

53. SEF says

@ Kel #5

No matter how many times a 6-sided die is rolled, it won’t come up with anything but the numbers on it’s face.

I have 6-sided dice with things other than numbers on their faces.

54. Richard Eis says

Correct me if i’m wrong, but doesn’t his math also imply that there is only one vertebrate species per planet in his magical scenario?

55. GunOfSod says

…thats not even wrong.

56. ngong says

PZ, regarding the 10^-3 number, my IQ is probably quite a bit lower than yours, so perhaps I can help you understand. Let me know.

57. says

Geez, even if you gave them the entire rIDiculous argument, the odds of a giant super fairy who lives in a magic castle beyond space and time is still far less likely.

58. secularguy says

PZ wrote:

The first paragraph is just weird. It’s an admission that prior formulations are fact free (and I agree!), but it tries to suggest that the following argument will contain facts.

To me, the first paragraph looks like a possibly sane preface to the insanity that follows it.

“A new [fact-free] breed of ID is in the process of supplanting the former fact-free versions” ??

So, should the first paragraph really be in Comic Sans?

59. Lilly de Lure says

Scrabcake said:

Hey! It’s maths! Let’s teach this in maths class!

It’s maths Jim but not as we know it (sorry, couldn’t resist).

Richard Eis said:

Correct me if i’m wrong, but doesn’t his math also imply that there is only one vertebrate species per planet in his magical scenario?

If I am reading him correctly he varies – at the beginning of the third paragraph he does mention that there are thousands of extant vertebrate species (nice of him to notice the invertebrates out there but that’s just my personal gripe) but by the end of the same paragraph and in all his “calculations” after that he seems to revert to the conclusion that there is only one. Consistency seems to be another area with which he has difficulty.

60. David L says

“Assuming that the probability is 10-3 that a new gene useful for vertebrate evolution came into existence”

PZ, I think you are thinking too deeply about the reasoning behind this statement. I sure he is assuming an arbitrary probability of one that a gene comes into existence, but only one gene in a thousand is useful.

#52
“this means that there would be a 50:50 chance of someone winning twice in (I estimate) about 30 years (assuming all the winners keep on playing with their same winning combination).”

Regardless of whether or not your calculations are correct, the last assumption is not needed. If every winner’s numbers were selected at random, the probability that there will be a repeat winner remains the same regardless of whether the winners continue to use the same numbers or change them for every draw

61. Christophe Thill says

“Let’s just note that this may not be true: Assuming you mean average in its common usage (i.e., the arithmetic mean, as opposed to the median), it may not be true that half the data points are on each side of “average.” ”

“Intelligence”, if it is something that can be computed and averaged, can be nothing else than the score obtained to a specific test. Generally it’s a test of the IQ family. IQ tests are calibrated so that its results follow a Gaussian distribution, ie symmetrical : mean = mode = media = 100 (and standard deviation = 15). So, yes, 50% of people are under average, by definition.

62. DiscoveredJoys says

There are some equally bogus mathematical arm waving arguments around that ‘prove’ 2 + 2 = 5 or that there are no working days in a year. The results are so out of step with reality that people readily realise that the calculations are meant (intelligently designed) to be jokes, even if they don’t immediately work out where the switcheroo was applied.

I susggest that some kind person should post the argument about Intelligent Design to some of the web joke pages, with an end piece along the lines of “Think this is interesting? Look out of the window and see how evolution really works. See any dogs? They used to be wolves a few thousand years ago. Seen the Tigons and Ligers at the zoo? Clearly they are species with a recent common ancestor species.”

63. Sam C says

Maybe a parallel argument works:

Here is my coffee cup on a table. If we assume that the table does not exist then there is nothing to hold the coffee cup up… yet it does not fall to the ground! Incredible! So God must be holding up my coffee cup.

(For table, read natural selection in the idiot argument…)

64. rickflick says

We have to acknowledge that the target audience for this kind of nonsense are the undereducated. It makes sense that they would find this a fascinating argument worthy of being passed along into their memeshere. Lets all work hard to improve education in the US.

65. TomS says

For serious reading about probability arguments as they relate to evolution and “intelligent design”:

Elliott Sober
Evidence and evolution : the logic behind the science
Cambridge, UK ; New York : Cambridge University Press, 2008

66. Ruth says

– “Intelligence”, if it is something that can be computed and averaged, can be nothing else than the score obtained to a specific test. Generally it’s a test of the IQ family. IQ tests are calibrated so that its results follow a Gaussian distribution, ie symmetrical : mean = mode = media = 100 (and standard deviation = 15). So, yes, 50% of people are under average, by definition. –

Except that IQ scores are, IIRC, always recorded as integers. Your IQ will be 106 or 107, not 106.73892.

Which means that, since there will be a certain number of people who have an IQ of exactly 100, the proportion of people having an IQ ‘under average’, i.e. strictly less than 100, is, by definition, less than 50%.

67. Ian says

What creationists seem to consistently miss is that bacteria had some three billion years in which to do all their genetic experimentation before anything even remotely like us came on the scene.

He’s also assuming that in all of the billions of bacteria all over Earth there were only 5,000 unique genes and that we still needed another 10,000 new genes to be added de novo.

68. Russell says

#1 HJE. I remember reading Richard A Muller, Physics prof UC Berkeley, ‘The Physics Diet’ http://muller.lbl.gov/
“The dairy industry hires a physicist to improve milk production. After several weeks, he’s ready to lecture about his progress. He draws a circle on the blackboard and says, ‘Consider a spherical cow.’.”
This is just more of the same stuff, never mind the evidence, go get facts that support MY theory.
It’s crazy, but it does provide one more nail in the IDEA of ID.
Moonshine anyone?

69. Donovan says

Okay, it’s all fun laughing at the guy, but I think he’s on to something. First, let’s assume enough serious scientists listen to him. We can say this is a chance of about 14^23154, a precise number arrived at by a system of adding planetary circumferences and dividing that by my cousins’ birthdays expressed as a single number and multiplying it by a seemingly random number divinely ordained to me by FSM. Now, take 14^23154 and ignore it. We will use 7 because it’s easier for you dumb EVILutionists to understand. 7 times 6, the number Darwin was triply IDed with, equals 42, the meaning of life, the universe, and well, everything. Since 7 is a stand in for 14^23154, what we end up with is 14^23154 times Darwin (6) equals the likelihood that this new argument from ignorance is valid. I fail to see how this could possibly be a coincidence.

Maybe if you guys would take the time to brush up on Christculus (calculus for Jesus), you would be able to follow.

70. steveo says

@ #47

G I G O == gospel in, garbage out

71. says

All that springs to my mind after reading that was Boris Johnson’s (now Lord Mayor of London) famous quote:

“What an inverted pyramid of piffle!”

72. Bob Carroll says

“Magical number hat” sounds about right. There’s a cute cartoon by Peter Arno (from the 1940s – possibly New Yorker) that expresses this succinctly: a chorus girl in costume is confiding a secret to another. She says “Now keep this under your hat.” Their costumes consist of not very much, but their derriers are covered by tiny hats.

73. Sastra says

In addition to ignoring the cumulative process of evolution, such arguments from improbability usually make the error of assuming a target in advance. Every poker hand is equally probable: if someone gets 5 royal flushes in a row, however, we are suspicious of “intelligent design,” because we know that sort of thing is a desired target.

The counterexample I like to use on these arguments is to ask the creationist what the odds are, starting from the Big Bang, that THEY would “be here.” Add in every possible contingency, every ancestor who could have missed meeting their mate, every single unfortunate sneeze taking place at the wrong time — consider every other alternative scenario, and add it up. The odds of that particular creationist being alive right at this moment, in this particular place, talking to me (who only exists due to multiple chance events also) is practically infinity to one.

“So I guess YOU don’t exist, huh?”

Tell them they must not be able to believe in their own existence. The odds are “too high” against it. Drives them nuts.

The universe has no desires. If it wasn’t them in particular, it would have been someone else. If it wasn’t humans, it would have been something else. At the bottom, such arguments assume the special importance of one and only one desired and desirable end result: the Significant Me.

74. hermit says

I am no statistician but I have always thought it impossible to “calculate” a fractional P value for a past event. The P values for past events are either P=1 for the event happened, or P=0 if the event did not occur. What the ID’ers are really struggling to calculate is this…..what is the probability that evolution would occur a second time..precisely the same way it occurred the first time. And I would agree that would be a small probability…but unfortunately for them, evolution does NOT say if we could roll back the clock 4 billion years, life on earth would ultimately return to the exactly the same forms of life we have today.

75. 6EQUJ5 says

Evolution works on all scales of time, not just glacially slow.

Ordinarily, gametes are 1n, so when they form a zygote it is 2n.

This is not always the case. When a gamete of species A accidentally forms as 2n, and meets up with a compatible 1n gamete, the resulting novel zygote is 3n — an increase by half not over millions of years but in merely a matter of minutes. This is a case of the sudden appearance of a new species.

A 2n gamete of species A finding compatible a 2n gamete of species B produces a novel zygote of 4n: in a matter of minutes, the genes have doubled and a new species has popped up out of nowhere.

Polyploidy happens. (There’s a lot of it in the food we eat.)

76. Tyson says

I don’t know that this was worth your time. There’s too much stupid in the world to deal with. Creationists don’t understand science, and they don’t understand numbers.

There’s no reason to argue that we won’t discover 10^30,000 planets because there are only 10^80 particles in the universe.

It’s almost like someone testifying that he didn’t do the murder because the knife could have quantum tunneled through the wall. People need to understand math.

77. SEF says

@ Sastra #75:

I wouldn’t expect your argument to work particularly well on creationists, if they “thought” about it at all beyond the particular point you’re trying to hammer into them, because they really do expect to be regarded as important end products wanted individually by their imaginary god. They’d always have the get-out clause of saying god carefully arranged for their various ancestors to meet and have the exact offspring required at each stage to produce themselves. However, they should of course then be required to explain away god’s desire to also have all the people (current and historical) and creatures they themselves most despise and dislike and want to change or kill.

78. Virgil says

The problem with using numbers such as “1 in 1000” is that you don’t know WHEN during the course of those 1000 iterations the event of interest (a new gene) will occur. He’s assuming that it occurs at iteration #1000, but in fact it could just as easily occur at point #1, point #32, point #867.

When you go to Las Vegas, with the chance of winning 1 in 1000 times, and you strike it lucky on bet #6, do you carry on and bet the remaining 994 times, just for the hell of it?

No, you take the money and run. That’s exactly what evolution does. Once a “choice” or a gain-of-function event has occurred, there’s no need to go and explore all the other possibilities, you just run with it and get on with the next round of evolution. This is why the system always comes out on top… it’s stacked with odds better than chance because once it “wins”, it doesn’t do what a pathological gambler does and go back to the tables!

Ergo, application of simple chance theory to evolution, as described above, is fundamentally flawed, and becomes even more so when you multiply those numbers.

79. yl says

“Basic math: divide 10,000 genes by 1 gene per 10,000 years, and you should get an answer of 10 million years.”

80. Escuerd says

I wish that the kind of brain that produces arguments like this were a reproductive liability. Alas, I suspect it’s an advantage.

81. says

A way to really annoy these “probability” illiterates is to assume that evolution actually happens (justified by observation) and to politely suggest that Mr Numbers got his sums wrong or made some unjustified assumptions. This kind of thing doesn’t need any more attention than that.

82. says

By the same logic, I shouldn’t exist. There are millions of sperm per ….er… well you know. So by no stretch of the imagination, I shouldn’t exist. There should by all odds be someone else writing this.
Evolution has a little helper, natural selection, which helps even the odd.
If you multiply the odd of me existing instead of someone else, by the population of the planet, you can find that astronomical odds don’t really amount to anything.
If natural selection plotted a different course we might have compound eyes and scales and be asking “what are the odds”

83. SteveM says

I am no statistician but I have always thought it impossible to “calculate” a fractional P value for a past event. The P values for past events are either P=1 for the event happened, or P=0 if the event did not occur.

Only if the event is documented to have occurred or not. Obviously, we do not explicitely know what happened 4 billion years ago to assemble “simple” molecules into complex proteins. So postulating events and assigning probabilities to them is reasonable, as long as one understands something of what they are talking about, which this nutcase clearly does not.

84. Rob says

I have a fair coin. I toss it, and it comes up heads.

What are the chances it came up heads? (hint: it’s not 50:50, read carefully)

85. MH says

Sam #65 wrote “Here is my coffee cup on a table. If we assume that the table does not exist then there is nothing to hold the coffee cup up… yet it does not fall to the ground! Incredible! So God must be holding up my coffee cup.”

The scary thing is that some people will think that is a good argument for ‘god’.

86. ckerst says

You know your theory is in trouble when it starts with “let’s assume”.

87. says

The problem with all of these ID theories is that they set up crappy straw-men like this, and they get blown down by the big bad wolf.

I mean, really, this is hardly an argument at all. Thanks for picking it apart, man, but the logical fallacies seemed pretty obvious.

88. Gingerbaker says

Romeo Vitelli said:

“One of my favourite SF writers, John Varley, once wrote that the idea of Intelligent Design can be refuted with a single word: testicles. Works for me.”

Most ideas can be refuted with a single word: testicles.

89. Ryan Cunningham says

To avoid concluding that God exists…
Epic fail. Even if their argument were 100% correct, we would conclude species had a different origin than the one Darwin proposed. That doesn’t mean there is a God.

90. says

Someone brought up a version of that on Panda’s Thumb.

It’s sort of painful to respond to something like that, pointing out that their “calculation of the probability of evolution” simply avoids evolution altogether.

91. EastwoodDC says

I heard a version of that one already from an acquaintance of the ID/Creationist persuasion, and I pointed out a few of these flaws to him. I never heard back from him about that one. I wonder why?

92. Donnie B. says

Kel @5 wrote:

No matter how many times a 6-sided die is rolled, it won’t come up with anything but the numbers on it’s face.

Actually, if you roll a 6-side die enough times, it will evolve into a perfect sphere with no markings at all.

It may require quite a few rolls before this evolution becomes apparent.

yl @81: That second 10,000 is a typo, I believe. It should be 1,000 according to the assumption stated in the previous sentence. The conclusion of 10 million years is correct, assuming that PZ’s assumption is any more valid than the one in the original post. ;-)

93. David Davidson says

1. The probability of any event’s occurrence or entity’s existence can be calculated.
2. The probability of any event’s occurrence or entity’s existence is inversely related to its complexity; ie, the more complex something is, the less likely it is to have happened or existed.
3. God is commonly defined as an entity possessing attributes without limits: power without limits, knowledge without limits, love without limits, etc.
4. Anything that is unlimited or infinite is necessarily more complex than anything that is finite or limited.
5. Therefore, God is infinitely complex.
6. Therefore, God is infinitely improbable.
7. Therefore, God does not exist.

Furthermore, the existence of the universe is supported by observational evidence. As is the existence of life. Both the universe and life are limited in scope (though not necessarily bounded). Therefore, I must conclude that the universe and life, however improbable, are not infinitely improbable. Therefore, per (4) above, it is infinitely more likely that the universe and life exist without the intervention of a God than that they exist because of the intervention of a God.

94. tsg says

When are creationists ever going to understand the enormous difference between saltation and evolution?

Or recognize that Natural Selection is decidedly NONrandom?

Or that mutations operate in parallel, not serially (nor non-cumulatively), and that they are also selected-for in parallel?

When they are ready to admit their hypothesis might be false. Until then, they have absolutely no desire to understand it.

Or that poking holes (well, trying to) in someone else’s theory does NOT strengthen one’s own ‘theory’?

Creationism claims evolution’s concrete foundation has cracks in the mortar to cover up that its straw hut has no floor.

95. tsg says

I have a fair coin. I toss it, and it comes up heads.

What are the chances it came up heads? (hint: it’s not 50:50, read carefully)

Only slightly related, but one of my favorite examples of the trouble you can get into when dealing with probabilities:

Given that the probability of an honest poker player being dealt a straight flush is 1 in 649739, what is the probability that a poker player, having been dealt a straight flush, is honest?

96. Mu says

From my reading, this in not an argument FOR ID as science, but an argument AGAINST evolution having a testable hypothesis. If evolutions is so unlikely as being unverifiable, the whole argument of NOT teaching ID as pseudo-science in schools falls down the wayside.
While this totally fails in regards to evolution, this might be a reasonable point in the origin of life discussion. Abiogenesis might actually be a “one in a million (insert your large number here) event” and not verifiable as having happened anywhere else. But luckily, that doesn’t satisfy the YEC crowd for whom it’s “all or nothing”; even if they could “prove” a god started evolution they’d lose on the “literal scripture” part.

97. tsg says

By the same logic, I shouldn’t exist. There are millions of sperm per ….er… well you know. So by no stretch of the imagination, I shouldn’t exist. There should by all odds be someone else writing this.

There is. You just think it’s you.

Evolution has a little helper, natural selection, which helps even the odd.
If you multiply the odd of me existing instead of someone else, by the population of the planet, you can find that astronomical odds don’t really amount to anything.
If natural selection plotted a different course we might have compound eyes and scales and be asking “what are the odds”

A probability professor comes into the lecture hall and says “On my way through the parking lot, I saw a license plate number ‘AXW-64J’. Of all the license plates there could be with that combination of letters and numbers, isn’t it incredible that I saw that one? What are the odds?”

Twenty students started doing the math, while one raised his hand after a couple of seconds. “About one in one,” he says.

“What makes you say that?” the professor asks, “There are over 45 million combinations possible.”

“Yes,” the student replies, “but you were virtually guaranteed to see a license plate. There is nothing significant about the one you happened to see.”

98. Flaky says

Am I the only one who’s fascinated by these sort of texts? There are many small clues that indicate that the author has the capacity to recognize the numerous logical fallacies in his text, yet he appears completely oblivious to them to the point that he seems to think of his idea as something that parallels greatest of scientific achievements. Was this text written to fool those who won’t or can’t see through its flaws, or does the author really believe it himself, or is it just a joke?

99. tsg says

Am I the only one who’s fascinated by these sort of texts? There are many small clues that indicate that the author has the capacity to recognize the numerous logical fallacies in his text, yet he appears completely oblivious to them to the point that he seems to think of his idea as something that parallels greatest of scientific achievements. Was this text written to fool those who won’t or can’t see through its flaws, or does the author really believe it himself, or is it just a joke?

The sheer number of times these arguments have been refuted only to be advanced again leads me to believe they are willfully lying.

One of the first things my Stats teacher taught us was,

Liars figure, and figures lie!

101. says

“First, assume a spherical cow…”

“… of uniform density…”

102. 1) Statistics is the study of uncertainty. Therefore, once an event has actually been detected and/or measured, it is no longer in the realm of statistics.

2) No amount of mathematical computation of any kind will render a certainty from an uncertainty.

3) If your numbers are good enough, you don’t need statistics. If they are bad enough, statistics won’t help.

103. Platypus says

Re #28:

Shouldn’t the game be called “Poker-eation”?

To paraphrase Einstein, god does not play Indian Head Poker with the universe.

104. tsg says

“First, assume a spherical cow…”

“… of uniform density…”

” … in a frictionless field … “

105. Richard says

The improbability of the existence of extraterrestrial vertebrates is the keystone of the argument against evolution having produced earthly vertebrates. Mad scientist has a very new meaning for me.

106. mothra says

@61

“I’m an entomologist Jim, not a mathematician!”
“You’re a teacher, there is a patient, go!”
[I want a calculator, never mind what I want it for, just send it]
“By gully Jim, I believe I can cure a rainy day!”

107. tsg says

The improbability of the existence of extraterrestrial vertebrates is the keystone of the argument against evolution having produced earthly vertebrates. Mad scientist has a very new meaning for me.

Kind of like how the Watchmaker argument argues that man-made things couldn’t have occurred naturally, therefore neither could the things that did.

108. Patricia says

Uuuuh…it’s not 42. I’m pretty sure it’s 23. ;o)

Grape Ape – are you sure 9 times? I only have two – Numbers 23:22 and Job 39:9,12.

109. SteveM says

1) Statistics is the study of uncertainty. Therefore, once an event has actually been detected and/or measured, it is no longer in the realm of statistics.

Not really, there is always the issue of measurement error.

Not entirely accurate, but I would say that probability is the study of uncertainty, while statistics is the study of measurement. Statistics are real data, probability is an abstration. So actually, before an event occurs or is measured it is in the realm of probability, after it occurs and is measured it enters the realm of statistics.

110. says

One thing I’ve noticed about the flawed thinking of creationists is that they can’t conceive of incremental changes over time. One argument one guy used with me over and over was “No lizard ever hatched a bird!”

It’s the same with the eye and irreducible complexity. To the creationist we have to go from nothing to a fully formed eye in a single generation.

I see it as a very significant lack of imagination, they can’t move their minds into new visualizations of new concepts.

111. SteveM says

I think a lot of other commentors have already said this, but I would like to just re-iterate that what this argument does is prove that evolution is not a purely random process. But no one ever said it was (except creationists).

112. JohnnieCanuck, FCD says

Job 39:9 Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib? …
Job 39:10 Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? or will he harrow …
Deut. 33:17 His glory is like the firstling of his bullock, and his horns are like the horns of unicorns:
Psalms 92:10 But my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of an unicorn: I shall be anointed with fresh oil.

Given that the unicorn translation in Job is disputed, Skeptics Annotated Bible only shows two mentions.

It is their opinion that the Psalmist is asking God to miraculously deliver an erection.

I would like to know why Joseph is described as having horns like the horns of unicorns. He had penes?

113. jj says

What UC campus has lectures on this? Maybe I’ll give that to UC Merced,or Riverside, still quite unlikely. As a UC Santa Cruz Biology student, I can tell you that isn’t happening in any lecture I’ve been to. Of course I’ve never taken a theology class before…

114. says

The creationist e-mail, in recipe form:

Take one heaping pile of made-up numbers. Add a liberal amount of word salad. Let fester in ignorance. And POOF! Evolution is disproven!

115. says

Don’t bother taking it apart. We (ID Conspirators and Enemies of Science, Inc,) had this briefly pass through our discussion group a few weeks ago. It was presented by someone to whom it was given by the author asking for comments. No one commented except to say it didn’t make any sense. As I recall the author is a retired physicist who by what I read must be in his dotage.

On the other hand you boys could use a fresh straw man version of ID and this is better than anything you could come up with on your recognizance.

116. Sven DiMilo says

what’s that smell?

117. Mrs Bastardley says

That’s numberwang!

118. says

I don’t know if this has been said already, but PZ, I believe you made a mistake in your math – if the probability for a new gene to be useful is 1/1000 and one new gene arises every 1000 years, then we get one new useful gene about every 1000*1000=1,000,000 years, not 10,000. This means that a genome of 10,000 genes would arise in 10^4/(1/10^6) = 10^10, or 10 billion years, which is coincidentally about the right order of magnitude. (Also, not to be a total jerk, but in your original analysis you should have arrived at 10^8 = 100 million years.)

Of course I’m not suggesting he’s right, but it’s good to keep track of zeros.