The Discovery Institute just keeps plugging along, pointlessly

Ahh, the Discovery Institute. A patent pseudoscientific think-tank funded by right-wing millionaires. Doesn’t that make you want to trust them?

They are now cheerfully leaping onto the anti-vax quack bandwagon — it’s where the money is, nowadays. They’ve come out with a new book, The Price of Panic, that tries to claim that the problem isn’t the pandemic, it’s the government’s response to the pandemic.

The human cost of the emergency response to COVID-19 has far outweighed the benefits. That’s the sobering verdict of a trio of scholars—a biologist, a statistician, and a philosopher— in this comprehensive assessment of the worst panic-induced disaster in history.

I think there are about 673,000 Americans who might argue with that. Oops, they can’t — they’re dead. You can always trust those bozos to get everything wrong.

The book is published by Regnery. Enough said.

Stephen Meyer is also out there pushing his new book, Return of the God Hypothesis. It is, of course, boring garbage. I’ve read a couple of Meyer’s books, but I’m not going to bother with this one — it’s all tedious, tendentious, repetitive nonsense, and all of his books sound the same. He might as well call the next one Bride of the God Hypothesis, then Son of the God Hypothesis, and maybe I’ll express some interest when Abbott and Costello Meet the God Hypothesis comes out.

Anyway, Meyer wrote an advertisement masquerading as a press release pretending to announce a serious idea, and the New York Post snapped it up. It does give you a taste of his bad argument.

As crazy as it all sounds, scientists have long posited the possibility of aliens on our planet. In fact, Francis Crick (who along with James Watson won the Nobel Prize for discovering the structure of the DNA molecule) once theorized that life on Earth was “deliberately transmitted” by intelligent extra terrestrials. Far from being scorned, Crick’s “Directed panspermia” theory was presented at a conference organized by Carl Sagan in 1971 and later published as a scientific paper.

One of the hallmarks of a Meyer book is the constant name-dropping. Oooh, Francis Crick! Famous prestigious scientist indulged in some fantastical speculation, and it got presented at a meeting (this is less impressive than you might think) and published! <swoon> It must be good stuff! No, it’s not. It’s a wild-ass idea that went nowhere. Crick is not famous as a panspermist.

I have theorized that life arose when a Space Winnebago flushed their toilet tanks while visiting Hadean Earth. It doesn’t mean anything. It is not evidence for anything. Unfortunately, I haven’t won a Nobel Prize so I haven’t been invited to fumigate a conference hall with my brain farts.

Oooh, Bill Gates next!

Watson and Crick discovered that chemical subunits in DNA function like letters in a written language or digital symbols in computer code. As Bill Gates explains, “DNA is like a computer program, but far, far more advanced than any software we’ve ever created.”

Bill Gates is a college dropout who knows nothing about biology, and who got rich on predatory business practices. He is not an authority on this subject. DNA is not like a computer program. It’s a misleading metaphor, applied by a guy who made computers his business. If he’d gotten rich off model railroad gear, he’d be claiming that DNA was just like a track, with switches.

How about Richard Dawkins? He’s got a little more credibility on this subject (but not much, and diminishing every time he opens his mouth).

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins echoes this assessment, noting the “machine code of the genes is uncannily computer-like.” In a recent tweet, he confessed to being knocked “sideways with wonder at the miniaturized intricacy of the data-processing machinery in the living cell.”

No, it’s not. He’s wrong. What does it even mean to speak of “machine code” of genes? Back in the ancient times of the 1970s, I sometimes wrote short bits of machine code, and I fail to see the appropriateness of the comparison. The cell and its genes are not computer-like at all, and it does not contain “data-processing machinery”, except in the vaguest sense of the phrase. This is word salad, written by someone who got a bit too excited about a metaphor. It serves Meyer’s purpose, though, so he goes ahead and uses it.

His purpose is to twist science, even Richard Dawkins’ philosophical atheism, into support for his favored assertion.

Believers in this kind of intelligence greatly outnumber believers in alien astronauts. They have long called this intelligence behind life and the universe by a different name.

They call it God.

It’s totally dishonest, of course. That’s written in the “machine code” of the Discovery Institute.

Meyer isn’t even a very good philosopher. He’s got one note that he bangs on, off-key, while desperately waving at out-of-context quotes from people who actually would strongly disagree with him.

Skip it. Ignore everything from that think-tank of lies.


  1. Dago Red says

    The human cost of the emergency response to COVID-19 has far outweighed the benefits.

    Use of “far outweighed” simply means this author (and the many on the right who have long expressed the same thing) places a very, very low value on human life itself.

    Secondly, I am amazed that these idiots don’t think through their talking points! “A cost in emergency response that…outweighs the benefits” is exactly what everyone wants to see in a crisis. I mean are they saying they want a low cost of emergency response in a crisis so that the “benefits” to it are negligible and, thus, making the death toll so high, even by they’re paltry valuation of human beings, that the cost in human lives EXCEEDS our emergency response? At the very least, this is the mutterings of a death cultist!

  2. IX-103, the ■■■■ing idiot says

    I know anthropomorphizing is to imply human characteristics in a non-human object. Is there an equivalent word for people who apply computer characteristics to things that are not computers?
    If not we need one to deal with all the people who confuse “capable of being used to perform computation” with “performing computation”. I mean, sure the quantum interactions of the entire universe could be used to calculate something, but that doesn’t mean we live in the matrix. Likewise we can probably perform very basic computation with DNA/RNA and the appropriate proteins, but it doesn’t make sense to say that living things are computing anything.

  3. says

    Stephen Meyer missed a good bet when he titled his book Return of the God Hypothesis when The God Hypothesis Strikes Back! was right there, begging to be used. He has no imagination, which is funny, because his science is imaginary.

  4. blf says

    @3, Heh! Or as the mildly deranged penguin suggests, Teh Magic Sky Faeries Are Still Underneath All Those Turtles.

  5. jrkrideau says

    “machine code of the genes is uncannily computer-like.”

    A lot of analogies like that were made to the steam engine back in the 19C. Strangely enough the steam engine was cutting edge technology back then.

  6. says

    3000 people die on 11 September 2001. Form a massive government monstrosity to spy on our own citizens (DHS). Clamp down on all air travel (TSA). Invade two countries and start a decades long war but don’t you dare touch the country that all the actual terrorists were actually from (Saudi Arabia).

    Virus that kills 600,000+. DON’T YOU DARE INFRINGE ON MY FREEDOM!

    Seriously, GWB got the biggest blank check ever for a lot less.

  7. raven says

    Plague Rats of the Discovery Institute:

    The human cost of the emergency response to COVID-19 has far outweighed the benefits.

    No it hasn’t.
    The Discovery Institute has just vaporized their credibility here. Not that they had any but this time they took their dead horse credibility and vaporized it with fireworks, sirens, flashing lights, and a rap music sound track.
    This is them shooting themselves in the feet again.
    They are just a common feature of pandemics. Plague Rats.

    .1. We know what an effective proactive response to the Covid-19 virus pandemic looks like. Some countries such as South Korea, New Zealand, Australia, China, Taiwan, Japan, etc.. have effectively controlled the pandemic and bought time for the vaccines to be developed and deployed.

    .2. Other countries have done little or nothing and have the major disasters to show for it.
    That would include Brazil, India, Indonesia, the USA, and to some extent Europe. High death tolls, damage to the economy, millions of permanently disabled long haulers. And their and our pandemics aren’t even over with. They/we are either between waves of variants or riding another wave of sickness and death.

    The India or New Zealand way? The Plague Rat Institute would choose India.

  8. raven says

    NYTimes today Updated July 18, 2021, 8:57 a.m. ET
    The Pandemic Has a New Epicenter: Indonesia
    The suffering that ravaged places like India and Brazil — with deaths soaring, hospitals overwhelmed and oxygen running out — has reached Southeast Asia.

    BEKASI, Indonesia — By the thousands, they sleep in hallways, tents and cars, gasping for air as they wait for beds in overcrowded hospitals that may not have oxygen to give them. Others see hospitals as hopeless, even dangerous, and take their chances at home.

    Wherever they lie, as Covid-19 steals their breath away, their families engage in a frantic, daily hunt for scarce supplies of life-giving oxygen.

    Indonesia has become the new epicenter of the pandemic, surpassing India and Brazil to become the country with the world’s highest count of new infections. ​ The surge is part of a wave across Southeast Asia, where vaccination rates are low but countries had until recently contained the virus relatively well​. Vietnam, Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand are also facing their largest outbreaks yet and have imposed new restrictions, including lockdowns and stay-at-home orders.

    This is the future the Plague Rats of the Discovery Institute would have had for the USA.
    Hospitals overwhelmed and running out of life saving supplies like oxygen, antiviral drugs, and even beds to put patients in.
    People dying in the streets or at home.
    High death tolls.
    High levels of permanent disability from the damage Covid-19 virus does to the body.
    Vaccines nonexistent or in short supply and hard to find. Rollout on track to be completed by 2026.
    We didn’t do all that well at dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, but we also could have done a whole lot worse.

    Fundie xianity is a death cult and they own the Dark Side of our society.

  9. lumipuna says

    If he’d gotten rich off model railroad gear, he’d be claiming that DNA was just like a track, with switches.

    The double helix rollercoaster is really fun, until your carriage runs into a stop codon.

  10. Matt G says

    Aaaaargh, he said the quiet part out loud! It’s not God – it’s the Intelligent Designer! And they aren’t creationists, they’re cdesign proponentsists…er, I mean design proponents.

  11. bcw bcw says

    those of us in the textile industry insist DNA is just like a really sophisticated Jacquard loom.

  12. bcw bcw says

    Actually the book title I’m waiting for is “Frankenstein meets the God Hypothesis.”

  13. garnetstar says

    DNA is machine code, data-processing machinery, far, far more advanced than any software we’ve ever created? Honey, that’s just pareidolia. (“Methinks it is like a weasel”, in fact.)

    DNA is nothing but a molecule, and not even a very complicated one, either. It isn’t code: what Dawkins denotes as “data-processing machinery”, chemists call “reactions”. OK, the biological processes that work with DNA in cells are quite complex, but also, as I understand, pretty messy. (OTOH, Gate’s software is also a mess. I can see why he’s reminded of that.)

    And, being gobsmacked with wonder at “miniaturized intricacy”? Try to contain your amazement, folks: minitaturized intricacy is what chemistry is, and it gets a lot more intricate and a lot more miniature than some organic bases sitting in a sugar-phosphate framework.

    In my grad research lab, people worked on binding small molecules like water (“ligands”) to metals. And, the lab’s slogan was “DNA is just another ligand.” Because, it is. Nothing to see here, folks. No marvels.

  14. whheydt says

    Re: anthonybarcellos @ #3…

    Missed Revenge of the God Hypothesis.

    My analogy, and I freely admit that analogies are far too often stretched beyond any plausible limit, is that the mind is to the brain as the operating system is to computer. Turn the hardware off, and the other part goes poof and disappears.

  15. fishy says

    a biologist, a statistician, and a philosopher

    In an airplane falling from the sky with only one parachute, the statistician wins. He’s a Republican with a gun. He murders the other two and he makes up an absurd story on the way down that everyone believes.

  16. Matt G says

    A “biologist,” a “statistician” and a “philosopher” walk into a bar….

  17. chrislawson says

    I know it’s hardly the most important point in Meyer’s drivel, but he knows so little about the science that he thinks Crick and Watson’s paper on the double helix structure of DNA was the same thing as cracking the genetic code. It was not. Crick was a key contributor to the elucidation of the genetic code, but he was far from the most important. Not to diminish Crick’s work, but if you had to rank its impact, it would sit behind the work of Avery, Chargaff, Gamow, Nirenberg, Ochoa, and Khorana, among others. And Watson had almost no involvement at all.

    (It should be mandatory that any mention of Crick and Watson’s seminal paper be accompanied by an acknowledgement that they stole Rosalind Franklin’s work and, in Watson’s case, subsequently lied about her not understanding the implications of her own crystallography when in fact it was she who corrected their model with base pairs on the outside of the DNA chain.)

  18. chrislawson says


    DNA is definitely a code. Base pair sequences get converted to amino acid sequences, which meets the definition of coding.

    Of course, that doesn’t make it much like any human-designed code, and certainly doesn’t make it god-designed, which is the deceptive fallacy Meyers is always trying to pull.

    And although I agree it’s foolish to present DNA as some kind of computer, I do think the genetic apparatus has some extraordinary parallels with human-designed computers — not because DNA was designed in any sense, but because it is at root an information storage and compilation system that has some traits broadly analogous to computer technology, such as error correction and executable function codes. This strikes me as a natural and indeed inevitable consequence of evolution, and not a sign of divine intention, and it does not surprise me that several theorists have proposed DNA-based Turing-complete computers (although they propose to use the chemistry of DNA replication in a vastly different way to natural DNA metabolism, which is not in itself Turing-complete).

  19. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    or digital symbols in computer code. As Bill Gates explains

    Not an acolyte of Gates by any means, give him a pass that he could have meant computer code like the code for a JPEG, Not code for a programming language. The quote seems taken out of context where he could have been explaining it more fully. [computer code] is a pretty generic term
    I argue this based on a report I recently saw from my alma mater (MIT) about using DNA to encode data more efficiently than through binary. Thus using DNA like a computer code to encode everything we know.

  20. says

    I think DNA is half of a relationship between a genome and it’s ribosomes. It’s an alkaline tolerant repository of new ribosomes. The poor thing, having it’s hydroxyls ripped off and staying home while the ribosomes go out and do stuff. Pre-cellular life.

  21. quasar says

    Obviously the Discovery Institute doesn’t understand biology, but Did You Know? They also don’t understand computer code. At all.

    They wrote: “Watson and Crick discovered that chemical subunits in DNA function like letters in a written language or digital symbols in computer code.”

    The comparison to written language implies that they are talking about a programming language, the stuff people write into a text editor and then run as a computer program. Thing is, though, this isn’t the stuff the computer reads. Not even close. Programming languages have to be converted into binary before they can do anything.

    (The following is an oversimplification, but good enough for now)

    Binary doesn’t have if statements or keywords or anything like that. Binary is just a very long string of gibberish. No human alive can read binary. Neither can computers for that matter. Computers don’t read, they simply interact, flicking switches on and off as the string passes through them. Computers ‘read’ binary in the same sense as the tumblers in a lock ‘read’ the notches on a keys.

    Which, to be fair to the original metaphor, is actually analogous to DNA. The conversion of DNA to proteins is a mindless, physical process.

    But the discovery institute obviously aren’t thinking of binary when they describe DNA. They’re thinking of the languages and the compilers we humans designed for our own purposes. And unfortunately for their religiously-motivated hypothesis, in nature, nothing analogous to either of those exists. There is no language that elegantly describes the exact behavior of a set of codons, no compiler we can use to convert that language into DNA.

    With DNA, all we have is that very very long string of gibberish. Which is why it’s so damn hard to study.

  22. birgerjohansson says

    Son of the God Hypothesis.

    The God Hypothesis Meets Godzilla.

    The God Hypothesis and the Phrenology Hypothesis vs the Monsters of Mars.

  23. birgerjohansson says

    Quasar @ 26
    Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal said it best: the genome is a hopeless tangle of legacy code.
    (Sometimes I wonder if a life span of a couple of centuries is theoretically possible, it is just not something that can be achieved by something as messy as evolution)

  24. unclefrogy says

    anything to try and sustain the appearance of their favorite interpretation of subjective existence.
    when the deeper one looks in every direction the more fuzzy it gets and their myths have less validity as any reality outside some metaphor for identifying the in group

  25. imback says

    While DNA gets all the glory, RNA does all the work. DNA just sits long and pretty in her castle, looking down on all the ‘little molecules’ bustling out in the commons. One of those little molecules is transfer RNA (tRNA) which ‘transfers’ a nucleotide triplet to an amino acid in building a protein. There must be some physical reasons within tRNA structure to associate each triplet to an amino acid, so it isn’t just magic poof and there it is as if God did it.

  26. chrislawson says


    Sorry for any imprecision in my language, but you would not be the code, you would be the interpreter.

    A code is just a system of representation that maps one set of information onto another. The genetic code is the set of {UUU -> phenylalanine, UGG -> tryptophan, etc.}. The ROT13 code is {A->N, B->O, C->P, etc.}. ITU Morse code is {dot dash -> A, dash dot dot dot -> B, dash dot dash dot -> C, etc.}. In standard Western music notation, {A3 -> 220 Hz, A4 -> 440 Hz, etc.}. Coding in computing just means writing an input sequence that is turned via code into a sequence of simple operations.

  27. birgerjohansson says

    KG @ 32
    Thank you.
    About poor analogies… It is genuinely hard to explain complex things that lie outside the kind of intuitive matters that are immediately accessible to the senses, like “rock fall down” and “bite hurt”.
    People still call genes a “blueprint” but a better analogy would be a recipe passed down orally, and giving shifting results depending on the performance of the different ovens.
    But even that is false, because when you cook something you have some basic understanding of what is happening.

    From genes you have layer upon layer upon layer until you get a final result; an organ, an instinct, an ability to work together with a billion billion commensal organisms (all with their own genomes).

  28. khms says

    The problem for evolution isn’t reaching some arbitrary age. The problem is finding the motivation to do it. (Ok, the selection pressure.)
    Think about it. By the time humans reach (say) 70, not only have they reproduced already if they are going to reproduce at all, often their children have reproduced and their grandchildren are growing up, too. From an evolutionary (as opposed to human) standpoint, they are no longer necessary. Why should evolution select for longer lifespans?

  29. KG says

    Why should evolution select for longer lifespans? – khms@34

    Well it clearly has done so in the human case – human lifespan is significantly longer than would be expected from our size (interestingly, larger species tend to have longer liefspans, but within species, smaller individuals tend to live longer). The ability to pass on the results of long experience is probably the key factor. But of course building and maintaining a long-lasting body requires more energy; current human lifespan is presumably the net outcome of these competing selection pressures.

  30. KG says

    BTW, khms, I don’t buy the: “because you have grandchildren you’re no longer evolutionarily relevant” argument. Dogs can reproduce before the age of 1, and live 15 years (even wolves in the wild can live to 8 or so). If there was no additional energetic cost to building and maintaining a long-lasting body, there would be selection pressure to lengthen lifespan (or at least, reproductive span) more or less indefinitely.

  31. beaglelady says

    How is the book anti-vax? Sure, the idea of it is stupid and dangerous. But is it explicitly anti-vax?

  32. says

    @chrislawson 31
    I was trying to be playful. Representation is abstraction. The “is a code” thing doesn’t work with me because representation needs brains. Otherwise it’s molecules binding molecules. Sure some features of a code fit, but I don’t believe one can cut out the part where intention makes codes that aren’t preserved without more meat computers with intent.

  33. says

    I’m serious about ribosome and pre-cellular life. The pyrimidine pathway Produces adaptors (U, membrane parts) and phosphorylation sources (C, a coenzyme A, lipid construction platform)) for membrane construction. The Purine pathway is older and makes other interesting things.

  34. unclefrogy says

    we might have developed a longer life span because it helps the rest of the population feed and care for the developing young (the next generation) and helps maintain the group, the social structure in which all the individuals exist, therefor insuring the survival of the gene pool (species).

  35. Owlmirror says

    I’ve linked to this comment by Paul W. before:

    To use a string of CS buzzwords, the particular kind of computer that the basic gene activation and transcription mechanisms implement is parallel, asynchronous, forward-chaining production system.

    What that means is that the program is mostly just a set of rules that say what do in response to what.

    A typical (non-structural) gene is just an if-then rule (a “production”) like

    IF A and B and not C THEN C and D and E

    The program variables A, B, C… are implemented as concentrations of chemicals in the nucleoplasm. (More precisely, they’re represented by the relevant binding sites on the molecules of those chemicals.)

    This is not an IF-THEN statement like in a serial program on your PC. It doesn’t get executed because the previous statement was executed and it’s the next one, and it does not implement flow of control. (There are no GOTOs in this machine language. There is no sequential stream of control to tell where to go.)

    A rule in a production system is less like a statement in a serial program than it is like a an axiom in logic. The above rule (sorta) says that if A and B are true, and C is not, then the rule can “fire” and “produce” something that says C and D and E and put it in the working memory of the computer, to affect which other rules can “fire.”

    In biological terms, one rule is represented by one gene, and the preconditions on the “left hand side” of the rule are represented by promoter and repressor binding sites–places that molecules with appropriate sites can dock to enable or disable the gene from being transcribed.

    When the rule fires, i.e., the gene transcribed it produces a molecule (transcription factor) with binding sites that implement C and D and E.

    It’s very different from a serial, sequential von Neumann machine, but it’s a well-understood kind of computer. It’s certainly well-understood that if you implement one in hardware (as opposed to simulating it in software), it is definitely a computer. It’s way more than it needs to be to be just “a computer,” and is a pretty interesting, flexible kind of computer.

    There’s also discussion between him and John Harshman, before and after. It’s a bit tricky, and perhaps counterintuitive.