Gussying up creationism with math doesn’t make it valid

I’m trying to read this article, “Using statistical methods to model the fine-tuning of molecular machines and systems” by Thorvaldsen and Hössjer, and wondering why I even bother, and why the Journal of Theoretical Biology bothered to publish it, because a) it undermines its own premise in the introduction, b) it’s loaded with irrelevant math, c) it contains no observations or experiments, and d) at the end it devolves into the usual circle jerk of references to the usual suspects in the Intelligent Design community. I had to throw up my hands and give up. It’s just mathematicians juggling assumptions and numbers to come to the conclusion they want.

The one interesting aspect is that unlike the Discovery Institute gang, they do give clear explanations of what they mean by “design” and “fine tuning” — it’s just that, once you read them, you feel like telling them that their work is done, further noodling about is pointless. Maybe that’s why the Intelligent Design creationists try harder to fog over the meaning of the words they use?

Anyway, here’s the only interesting stuff in the whole thing.

The term fine-tuning is used to characterize sensitive dependences of functions or properties on the values of certain parameters (cf. Friederich, 2018). While technological devices are fine-tuned products of actual engineers and manufacturers who designed and built them, only sensitivity with respect to the values of certain parameters or initial conditions are considered sufficient in the present paper. We define fine-tuning as an object with two properties: it must a) be unlikely to have occurred by chance, under the relevant probability distribution (i.e. complex), and b) conform to an independent or detached specification (i.e. specific).

To which I would reply that a) unlikely events happen all the time, so mere measures of probability, especially after the fact, are of little consequence, and b) groovy, so does this mean you are going to provide an independent or detached specification for a specific evolutionary event? [Answer: No, they are not.] If your definition requires addressing two parameters, and at the very outset of your project you have to admit that you don’t have the second one and that playing mathematical games cannot provide it, then aren’t we done? That was the second paragraph of the whole article, which makes for a quick read, too.

But no, sorry, they go on.

The notion of design is also widely used within both historic and contemporary science (Thorvaldsen and Øhrstrøm, 2013). The concept will need a description for its use in our setting. A design is a specification or plan for the construction of an object or system, or the result of that specification or plan in the form of a product.

Yes, yes. I’ve been saying this for years. If you want to claim there was a design for an organism, show me the blueprint from which it was built, and I’ll believe you. If you go to Mars and find a set of billion year old program specifications for Project Mouse, laid out by the Martian designers, with a couple of thousand manuals that lay out the details of the biochemistry, physiology, and morphology of Mus musculus, then I’ll have to admit that you’ve got solid evidence that mice are the product of design. You’ve said it right there in your definition, that you have to have a specification or plan the precedes the product.

Except then they immediately waffle. All you need is the product itself, and then you get to infer the specification or plan. That makes no sense. I can find a pebble in my yard which is unique in all of its particulars, where every scrape and mark and fracture sets it apart from otherwise similar pebbles. The probability of that specific pebble having its specific constellation of attributes is minuscule. Are you going to try and tell me that therefore there is somewhere on file in the Great Designer’s filing cabinet a project laid out for Pebble, Minnesota, 21st Century, Myers yard, grey, roughly ovoid? You might believe that’s the case, but I’d like to see it.

Instead, we get a lesson in etymology. I had to laugh, this is so ridiculously irrelevant.

The very term design is from the Medieval Latin word “designare” (denoting “mark out, point out, choose”); from “de” (out) and “signum” (identifying mark, sign). Hence, a public notice that advertises something or gives information.

Great. So where’s the public notice? Somewhere in the main Megabrantis office which is open on Tuesdays, between 1 and 1:15pm, standard Vogsphere time?

The design usually has to satisfy certain goals and constraints. It is also expected to interact with a certain environment, and thus be realized in the physical world. Humans have a powerful intuitive understanding of design that precedes modern science. Our common intuitions invariably begin with recognizing a pattern as a mark of design. The problem has been that our intuitions about design have been unrefined and pre-theoretical. For this reason, it is relevant to ask ourselves whether it is possible to turn the tables on this disparity and place those rough and pre-theoretical intuitions on a firm scientific foundation.

Just once, please consider that our intuitions can be wrong, rather than struggling to find some mathematical justification for them.

Unfortunately, the paper is primarily about fine tuning, allowing them to ignore this problem, and they’re going to move on.

Fine-tuning and design are related entities. Fine-tuning is a bottom-up method, while design is more like a top-down approach. Hence, we focus on the topic of fine-tuning in the present paper and address the following questions: Is it possible to recognize fine-tuning in biological systems at the levels of functional proteins, protein groups and cellular networks? Can fine-tuning in molecular biology be formulated using state of the art statistical methods, or are the arguments just “in the eyes of the beholder”?

Yes. We are quite confident that biological organisms have been fine tuned by natural selection. Is that what you mean?

There’s no point in worrying about it, though, because after I read the following sentence I threw my hard copy of the paper in the trash.

The chances that the universe should be life permitting are so infinitesimal as to be incomprehensible and incalculable.

But…but…if they’re incalculable, then how did you determine that they are infinitesimal? Jesus. Creationist mathematicians.


  1. mcfrank0 says

    Not to mention that, to mathematicians, infinitesimal and incalculable have very specific meanings that are not in use in the quoted paragraph.

  2. says

    I see you’re fine tuning argument and raise you the anthropic principal, thus nullifying any fine tuning argument. Simply put, if the universe wasn’t the way it is, so that intelligent could evolve and ask “why is the universe the way it is” then there wouldn’t be anyone to ask the question.

    Yeah, it’s a paradox, but it doesn’t make any less sense than the who created the creator paradox. In fact it makes more because we adapt to new information. Creationists do not. Hell, Ken Ham and Eric Hovind have been making the same arguments for decades at this point.

  3. nomdeplume says

    Sad to watch the contortions [presumably] go through to try to justify nonsense.

    Creationists be made to answer two questions:

    Please explain how evolution could NOT happen on this planet.
    Please explain the mechanism by which your Imaginary Friend the Great Designer interfered. in the genetic make-up of organisms.

  4. says

    Good to see someone with the intestinal fortitude to actually read that paper. Are they arguing that the universe is fine-tuned, so therefore there is a God, and take that, atheists? That says nothing about evolution — especially if they argue that the universe is fine-tuned to allow natural evolutionary processes to occur. They instead seem to be trying to connect the fine-tuning argument with the Complex Specified Information argument. The specification they describe is actually basically having high fitness. And all the arguments that the ID advocates have given that are supposed to show that this high level of fitness is not attainable by ordinary evolutionary processes end up not working. Sounds mysterious and impressive, but doesn’t work.

  5. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    They should be calculating the odds of their imaginary designer coming into existence….
    Who designed the designer, or did it arise from abiogenesis and evolution, and how does this square with Occam’s razor?

  6. blf says

    A design is a specification or plan for the construction of an object or system, or the result of that specification or plan in the form of a product.

    It is, therefore there was a plan.

    An infinite supply of Maxwell’s daemons typing might, eventually, produce a plan for the quoted hot air.

  7. dontlikeusernames says

    What is Gussying, pray tell? I’m oldish but familiar with… vernacular?

  8. leerudolph says

    Ray Ceeya@2:

    Simply put, if the universe wasn’t the way it is, so that intelligent could evolve and ask “why is the universe the way it is” then there wouldn’t be anyone to ask the question.

    Even more simply put by the late Bob Park:

    Stated another way, the anthropic principle merely says that “if things were different, things would not be the way things are.”

  9. blf says

    @8, There’s this amazing thing called the WWW (or Internet, to be less pedantic), which even has these things called “dictionaries” which can be found by “search engines”. From one dictionary, “gussy(ing): to adorn or decorate in a gimmicky, showy manner (usu. fol. by up)”.

  10. dontlikeusernames says

    @10 Wow, condescending, nice! :D I think I did try to look it up, but maybe I misspelled. I prostrate myself before your superior intellect.

  11. IX-103, the ■■■■ing idiot says

    Not to mention that the fine tuning argument doesn’t make sense from an engineering perspective.

    Which is the better product, the one that requires parts to match within 0.1% of the specification or one that can use (cheaper) parts that match within 5%?

    Sure I may require fine tolerances somewhere because there’s tangible benefits, but a good engineer tries to leave enough slack so that a single out of spec part doesn’t break everything.

  12. Matt G says

    leerudolph@9- Exactly. If the fundamental physical constants of our universe weren’t exactly as they are, then our universe couldn’t exist. Tautology.

  13. Dan Phelps says

    How in the world did this nonsense get by peer review? I used to assist with an Elsevier Science journal related to geology. The review process was detailed and rigorous. Possibly someone must have not done their due diligence or the authors must have had friends as reviewers.

  14. cartomancer says

    It’s not a terribly good disquisition on etymology either. The prefix de- means “from” or “concerning”, not “out of” (that would be ex-).

    Also, why state that it’s Medieval Latin? The word design entered English from Old French, which got it from Medieval Latin, which got it from Classical Latin (pretty much directly), which formed it from Proto-Italic and ultimately Proto-Indo-European precursor words. What does alighting on the Medieval section of its history achieve?

  15. birgerjohansson says

    If the multiverse is infinite it will have some universes that are fine-tuned enough. D’uh.

  16. unclefrogy says

    I want simple clear answers ones that are comforting as well I am just not willing to make them up.
    I do not see where any of that gets you anything, just word games nothing more. I also think the argument that if things were different things would be different is even worse none sense. If things were different only means we would not be here it does not mean nothing would be here or no one would be here.
    all of these argument these proofs of “designer/ god” sounds like they lack faith to me and feel the need to justify their beliefs. I do not need any proof, they do not have anyway and their god does not need any proof either maybe they are trying to convince themselves?

  17. leerudolph says

    mcfrank0@1: “to mathematicians, infinitesimal and incalculable have very specific meanings”

    Well…in contemporary mathematics “infinitesimal” has several “very specific meanings”, depending on which version of “non-standard analysis” (NSA) is being used at the time by the mathematician(s) in question. (It is not used except in NSA.) In the versions of NSA that I have some (small) familiarity with (Robinson’s, Nelson’s, and Conway’s) the phrase “so infinitesimal [as to]” is meaningless; conceivably it might be used as a colloquial way of saying something like “infinitesimal of a sufficiently high order [that]”, but at least “sufficiently high order” waves its hands in the direction of quantifiability, whereas “so” just punts. On the other hand, the sentence that prompted PZ to throw his hard copy of the paper in the trash (by which I assume he means the recycling bin; though why he even made a hard copy, I cannot fathom) isn’t explicitly claimed by its authors to be a mathematical statement, though I’m sure they would be happy to use their—dubious!—authority as a mathematician and a hanger-on of mathematicians (or at least of one mathematician) to give readers the impression that it is a mathematical statement.

    As to “incalculable”, I don’t think I’ve ever seen (or heard) it used by a mathematician writing (or talking) mathematics. Out of the 3,801,765 reviews (as of today) of mathematical papers at the American Mathematical Society’s Mathematical Reviews website, only 15 (from 1955 through 2017) use the word (mostly quoting the paper under review, occasionally giving the reviewer’s opinion), essentially always in its colloquial sense, with the only (possible) exceptions being in papers by physicists where the apparent meanings appear (to me) to be merely acknowledging that a particular (highly speculative) physical model of some physical phenomenon predicts a number that present techniques cannot calculate with any precision (so, not necessarily a very large number). There is no evidence there, at all, of any very specific meaning, mathematical or not. At best, Thorvaldsen and Hössjer appear to (again) be trying to impress the naive reader with the enormous depth of their thoughts.

    They should be ashamed of themselves.

  18. jrkrideau says

    I managed to slog through some of the verbiage and what I read looked like a crappy first year undergrad paper done over night.

    What was all that weird discussion about frequentest versus Bayesian stats about anyway?

    @ 15 Dan Phelps
    Elsevier gives the impression that it has some very dodgy journals in its stable so you get a mix of top notch publications and some about 1 step above the real bottom feeders that show up in Beall’s List. Maybe they use the crappy ones to add bulk to the various bundled sets of journals they flog to academic libraries?

  19. chrislawson says

    Anyone who thinks infinitesimal means too small to be meaningful has not understood calculus. I expect their next paper to be an explanation of why Achilles can only overtake tortoises because god.

  20. raven says

    The chances that the universe should be life permitting are so infinitesimal as to be incomprehensible and incalculable.

    Assertion without proof or data and so may be dismissed without proof or data.
    .1. This is just wrong.
    .2. It is wildly wrong on a simple basis as well.
    Probabilities only refer to future events.
    The probability that the universe is life permitting is 1!!!
    We already know this.

    This is basically a Gish Gallop mixed with a lot of pure gibberish and devolves down to the usual creationist fallacy.
    Fallacy of Ignorance and Personal Incredulity.
    “I don’t understand evolution so goddidit.”

  21. raven says

    FWIW, the late physicist Victor Stenger showed that the universe isn’t fine tuned anyway.
    That is a statement often made as a fact, when it is an unquestioned assumption.

    The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: Why the Universe Is Not Designed for Us
    by Victor J. Stenger

    A number of authors have noted that if some physical parameters were slightly changed, the universe could no longer support life, as we know it. This implies that life depends sensitively on the physics of our universe. Does this “fine-tuning” of the universe suggest that a creator god intentionally calibrated the initial conditions of the universe such that life on earth and the evolution of humanity would eventually emerge? In his in-depth and highly accessible discussion of this fascinating and controversial topic, the author looks at the evidence and comes to the opposite conclusion. He finds that the observations of science and our naked senses not only show no evidence for God, they provide evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that God does not exist.

    Dr. Stenger wrote an entire book on this subject, which I at least read, but can’t summarize in a small comment box.

    Basically, if you take the fundamental constants of our universe and vary them, you get a huge number of universes that could support some form of life.
    Changing just one constant might cause problems.
    Which you can compensate for by changing another one.

  22. raven says

    More from the Amazon summary:

    Stenger argues that many of the claims by theists are based on their misunderstanding of the science. He looks at the specific parameters and shows that plausible reasons can be found for the values they have within the existing standard models of physics and cosmology. These models are introduced in detail so that the reader has the background needed to understand the role of the parameters claimed to be fine-tuned and judge the veracity of the arguments.

    He also discusses related issues such as whether or not the universe had a beginning, what quantum mechanics implies about the involvement of human consciousness in affecting reality, and whether evidence can be found in nature for a divine plan.

    Although Stenger has touched on the subject of fine-tuning in other books, this is his most thorough exploration of a topic that continues to intrigue scientists and the lay public alike.

    Stenger is a good writer and knows his physics.

    That being said, this book is written at a high technical level but anyone with a reasonable education can get most of it.
    Anyone who really cares can’t go wrong by getting a hold of a copy and reading it.

  23. brucegee1962 says

    I’ve had a short story in mind for a while now. The premise is that, if your white blood cells were intelligent, they would come to the conclusion that your body was specifically and carefully designed by some omnipotent designer for the sole purpose of providing the ideal home for white blood cells.
    There is also a great deal that they simply would never be able to understand, like what is the purpose of this “eye” and “ear” organ. Most of the other organs they could figure out. If they happened to be in a female body, they might figure out the purpose of the reproductive system: to create a new universe for white blood cells. The male system would leave them clueless, though.

  24. Rob Grigjanis says

    raven @24:

    More from the Amazon summary:
    He looks at the specific parameters and shows that plausible reasons can be found for the values they have within the existing standard models of physics and cosmology.

    Well, if your standards for ‘plausible’ are low enough…


    I explain that the reason gravity is so much weaker than electromagnetism for elementary particles is because of their low mass compared to the Planck mass. I then propose a plausible explanation for this low mass, namely, in the standard model the masses are intrinsically zero and their observed masses are the result of small corrections, such as the Higgs mechanism.

    The second sentence is just nonsense, which amounts to “the masses are small because we observe them to be small”.

    There’s no doubt that fine-tuning is often not as fine as some might think (see Weinberg), but for some reason Stenger feels obliged to, at least in some instances, use arguments which are as shoddy as those used by the people he is arguing against.

  25. rietpluim says

    I thought the part about etymology was pretty sensible. But then again, I just happen to like etymology.

  26. chris61 says

    Yeah, I read just far enough to see that they weren’t talking about synthetic biology (interesting) but creationism (boring).

  27. Pierce R. Butler says

    Be careful what you say about mice:

    These creatures you call mice, you see, they are not quite as they appear. They are merely the protrusion into our dimension of vastly hyperintelligent pandimensional beings.

  28. mnb0 says

    “Im trying to read this article”
    Sometimes being naive means being foolish. I quote:

    “Constants and initial conditions of nature are deliberately tuned.”
    “how it challenges conventional Darwinian thinking”
    What more do you need to conclude that it will be garbage?

    It looks like Steinar Thorvaldsen is not a mathematician; he studies Temporal and Modal Logic, Philosophical Logic, and Philosophy of Time.
    And aren’t you happy that these IDiots are Scandinavian iso American Loons?

  29. mnb0 says

    @23 and 24 Raven: not to contradict you, but what’s wrong with fine-tuning can be understood without any technical knowledge as well.

    It commits the fallacy of begging the question. It assumes a purpose to argue for a purposeful agent. As pointed out this is the crucial difference between fine-tuning and the anthropic principle.
    It depends on the Cosmological Argument. If that one fails (and it does) fine-tuning doesn’t even make sense.

    On a sidenote, because it’s not really a refutation:

    If fine-tuning would be a valid argument (which it isn’t) it would rather argue for polytheism than for monotheism. For one thing there are about 30 natural constants to be fine-tuned, which in philosophy could be translated as about 30 First Natural Causes. Still I’ve yet to meet the first abrahamist converting to hinduism or another form of polytheism as a consequence of this argument. In other words: these apologists are hypocrits.

    @25 BruceG: let me paraphraze Herman Philipse, God in the Age of Science.”

    “Saying that the universe is fine-tuned for human life in particular seems to be as absurd, as would be the claim put forward by a little lonely fly in the White House that this building was constructed especially for it.”
    In fact (and Philipse does point this out elsewhere in his book) the ratio of fly vs. White House is much, much bigger than the ratio of our Solar System vs. our Universe. So the argument even commits the deadly sin of vanity.

  30. Fez says

    We define fine-tuning as an object with two properties: it must a) be unlikely to have occurred by chance, under the relevant probability distribution (i.e. complex),

    From the odor I sense someone is backing a truckload of horseshit up to the loading dock in preparation to claim the handwaving is just an attempt at shooing away the files.