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.


Rich Hughes said...

Great posts, Bob.

I'll foorward it to PZ, if you don't mind?

Bob O'Hara said...

Go ahead! Although it might be old news now.


Panic Attacks said...

This is rather shocking - "he doesn't actually try to apply the method, and then note that there might be false positives". This article makes light of the matter in the end, but getting amused is not the whole point of the Intelligent Design Challenge, is it? Just my two cents...