Saturday, 2 February 2008

Was the Intelligent Design Challenge Intelligently Designed?

A couple of days ago, Ian Musgrave put up The Intelligent Design Challenge at The Panda's Thumb. He gave 6 DNA sequences, and the challenge was to work out which ones were designed by humans. What I thought was interesting about this was not so much finding the answer, but working out what Ian Musgrave was trying to show, and whether the intelligent design community would pass the test he was really setting. Or indeed if they even spotted it.

The reaction of the professional IDers was, apparently, to not enter. Bill Dembski posted the challenge at Uncommon Descent, but went no further (at least publically). Casey Luskin, attack-mouse of the Disco Institute (Casey, any chance of you sending mea signed photo I can put up here?) told us in the UD thread

Dembski’s methods of design detection can discriminate between informational patterns that are produced by chance/law, or alternatively were produced by intelligence. When there is real design to be detected, Dembski’s methods of design detection can work regardless of whether the designer was human or non-human.

and then complained that the other sequences might be of non-human design, so the method won't work. Of course, he doesn't actually try to apply the method, and then note that there might be false positives. Neither are apparently prepared to use Dembski's explanatory filter for anything other than making divine coffee.

One of the amateur IDers, Patrick, did some detective work. He discovered that four of the six sequences are found in the synthetic bacterium Mycoplasma genitalium. The rest of the UD crowd are ecstatic and declare victory. Oh, and complain about how it's an awful challenge. Even funnier, when Musgrave clarifies the challenge, they really pile on, claiming total victory using an appalling cricket analogy (my conclusion is that Patrick didn't read the final delivery and was undone by the wrong'un).

Now, before Musgrave reveals all, I'll try and make an intelligently designed prediction, based on my extensive research (5 minutes BLASTing the sequences). BLAST is an algorithm for efficiently searching DNA sequences for close matches - you give it a sequence, and it tells you what sequences are similar. There is a huge database called GenBank, which should contain all publically available sequences. If you plug in Ian Musgrave's sequences in (as the ironically named Teleological has also done), you find that the same four sequences as Patrick are in there as coming from the synthetic bacterium. But, the final sequence, number 6, is also found in a natural M. genitalium, so it isn't artificially designed. Nobody at UD seems to have noticed this yet.

Two points amused me. Firstly, I was not surprised that there was a little trap - what's the point in setting a challenge like this if you make it easy? The second one is the way Patrick found the solution. Before his post, DLH had pointed to Venter's work on making an artificial bacterium. Patrick acknowledges that he has to use extra information to decide which is designed, and indeed argues that he needs to have this extra information. In other words he needs to know the identity of the designer. This is not good because ID claims that it is possible to detect design without knowing anything about the designer. There is a strong insistence that one shouldn't say anything about the identity of the designer. A cynical interpretation of this is that it is an attempt to avoid admitting that the designer is their Christian God, so that ID is creationism, and hence religion. So, Patrick has demonstrated an important point - in practical design detection one immediately tries to use as much information as one has about the putative designers. And why not?

Oh, silly me. Politics. Read more!

Thursday, 31 January 2008

Big Grant Deadline Today!

Today is the deadline for applications to the Finnish Academy, so scientists all over the country are busy writing abstracts and trying to find an amusing acronym for their project. The bad news for them is that they are up against fierce competition.

Yes, the beast will soon send off the description of his project on Integrated Pest Management For The Removal of the Coarse-haired Wombat (Vombatus ursinus) from Finland.

35% is a reasonable proportion of the grant for me to charge as an overhead, don't you think?
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Monday, 28 January 2008

Not a bluff

I got home late today (I might blog about why later), and found two postcards from the post office through my letterbox. For those of you who don't know, if the Finnish post office can't deliver a package, they put a postcard through your letterbox telling you to pick it up.
Anyway, I was expecting one package, with some books in it (CRC Press/Chapman and Hall was having a sale). But two? Anyway, I wandered down to the post office, just before it closed and picked the up. One was large and light, the other smaller but heavier and presumably contained the books. How wrong I was! The larger package was full of statistical goodness, and clear air. The smaller package had several copies of the February issue of Bluff Europe, evidently a poker magazine (and not as exciting as Buff Europe...). I don't even play poker - it's too close to work.
So, if anyone in Helsinki wants some hot tips from Sammy Farha - the coolest man in poker (huh? I thought that was someone else), just get in contact with me. You too can follow Phil Hellmuth's Fantasy Final Table!

Me? I'm just a lawnmower. You can tell me by the way I walk.
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