Luskin on Information: Part 0

Casey Luskin has decided to treat us to an agony in eight fits, wherein he will whine mightily concerning “information”. I don’t know how many of those I’ll be taking note of, but I might as well have a look at the first one.

It does not augur well for the series. Luskin leads with a lot of bluster, claiming that citations to the scientific literature on the topic of genetic information were “bluffs”. It seems dubious to me that Luskin will be able to do more than try to spin armchair philosophy stuff from William Dembski and Stephen Meyer as somehow putting actual research in doubt.

Here’s an example of Luskin innuendo, complete with scare quotes:

Virtually all of those “publications” mentioned by Judge Jones came from one single paper Miller discussed at trial, a review article, co-authored by Manyuan Long of the University of Chicago.4 The article does not even contain the word “information,” much less the phrase “new genetic information.” 5

Well, a publication is still a publication, and a peer-reviewed one to boot, even if it is cited in a review article, so it is unclear what, exactly, Luskin is trying to do with the scare quotes. Usually the Discovery Institute (DI) is all for counting any odd scrap of paper with print on it as a publication, even inventing meaningless phrases like “peer-edited” to try to put some cachet on obvious partisan near-vanity press dreck. Perhaps the DI respect for articles and books only goes so far as to cover those that toe the “intelligent design” creationism (IDC) party line.

One can see that Luskin managed to shoot himself in the foot in that sentence-as-paragraph. Notice the footnote. That goes down to this text:

[5.] The word “information” appears once in the entire article—in the title of note 103. Id. at 875 n. 103. See Manyuan Long, Esther Betrán, Kevin Thornton, and Wen Wang, “The Origin of New Genes: Glimpses from the Young and Old,” Nature Reviews Genetics, Vol. 4:865-875 (November, 2003).

So, Casey, how is it that you can get all huffy about someone not including a specific phrase of “new genetic information” when the title promises that the article is about “new genes”? Do you suppose that “new genes” are never associated with new genetic information? If you were that nit-picky about things being different you wouldn’t have been making those claims about the degree of “near-verbatim” passages in the Kitzmiller decision. It appears that the one trait that runs through both of the aspects of Luskin’s text discussed above is hypocrisy.

It gets worse from there.

But are Judge Jones’s, Ken Miller’s, and the NCSE’s bold proclamations supported? Does Long et al. actually reveal the origin of new biological information? Is Explore Evolution wrong? A closer look shows that the NCSE is equivocating over the meanings of the words “information” and “new,” and that the NCSE’s citations are largely bluffs, revealing little about how new genetic functional information could originate via unguided evolutionary mechanisms. This bluff was accepted at face value by Judge Jones, who incorporated it in his highly misguided legal ruling.

No, Casey, the equivocation about “information” comes from antievolutionists like your colleague William Dembski. As for “new”, this point can be found in the transcript of the Kitzmiller trial, where Scott Minnich was cross-examined by Pepper Hamilton’s Stephen Harvey. When asked about the evolution of a DNT breakdown system that evolved in bacteria, Minnich agreed that the multi-part system developed naturally, but dismissed it as an “adaptive response” rather than being evolution per se. But the IDC mindset comes through clearly there, as Minnich testified:

Q. And if you look on — at figure 1, which is on page 113. And Matt, perhaps if you can bring that up for us. These researchers, based on their own original data, have published the organization and evolution of the bacteria that breaks down DNT?

A. Right. This is an adaptational response.

Q. And that’s a DNT — this process by which these bacteria breakdown DNT, that’s a biochemical pathway?

A. Correct.

Q. So we do have published information in this scientific literature about the evolution of biochemical pathways?

A. Steve, you’re extrapolating from the data here. I mean, not all these enzymes evolved specifically to break down this compound. I mean, you’re mixing and matching enzymes, I’m sure, from pathways that had some other property.

It’s pretty simple, really. A gene is new if it was not there in the population before but is now. A system is new if it does something that was not done before. Evolution, if Luskin had paid attention in class (and I don’t know what excuse Minnich could claim), works by modification of what exists. And sometimes those modifications result in novel functionality.

As for the stuff we don’t see happening in living systems, as alluded to in Minnich’s testimony, the de novo injection of systems that had no precursors, that’s what is known as “special creation”. It’s pretty ironic that when trying to figure out what they want from evolutionary science, quite commonly the antievolutionists are really asking that biologists demonstrate that creationism is observed.

Casey Luskin again:

In fact the origin of new functional biological information is perhaps the most important question in biology. As origin of life theorist Bernd-Olaf Kuppers stated in his book Information and the Origin of Life, “The problem of the origin of life is clearly basically equivalent to the problem of the origin of biological information.”8

Now, I think someone introduced the word “equivocation” into the discussion. Right, that would be Casey. And here we see why Luskin introduced “equivocation” into the discussion: he’s projecting. There’s something a bit different between the processes that we see happening in the evolution of living things (the subject of discussion) and pre-biotic chemistry when talking about new genetic information. That would be that there is a system of inheritance established and operating in living things, something that is not available as an assumed starting position in origin-of-life research. So dropping origin-of-life into the discussion is simply a non sequitur, though one that has strong misleading properties.

Casey Luskin:

Judge Jones was not merely in error. Worse than any simple mistake, the misinformation he propounded in his ruling entered media and academic culture, becoming enshrined as a Darwinian myth, alongside many others. This myth holds that perhaps the most important question in biology has been solved, when really (as this series of 8 total posts will show), that is far from being the case.

This is what the lawyers call “an appeal to facts not in evidence”. In fact, parts of this have already been proven false just in the discussion above, and Luskin hasn’t even gotten around to much more than a quote-mine, some projection, and a double dollop of hypocrisy. Nor do I have any expectation that the parts yet to be published will do any better than Luskin’s initial poor showing.

Wesley R. Elsberry

Falconer. Interdisciplinary researcher: biology and computer science. Data scientist in real estate and econometrics. Blogger. Speaker. Photographer. Husband. Christian. Activist.

27 thoughts on “Luskin on Information: Part 0

  • 2010/02/12 at 12:02 pm

    Dollars to donuts says that in the entire 8-post series, he never once gives a useful or operative definition of “information.”

  • 2010/02/12 at 5:15 pm

    I guess “information” is the latest euphemism for creationism, coming after strengths and weaknesses,
    teach the controversy, academic freedom, whatever!

    What is the average shelf life for each?

  • 2010/02/12 at 7:07 pm


    When an antievolutionist says “information”, 99 times out of 100 what they mean is “meaning”. I think that they’ve actually gotten a bit more forthcoming on this lately. However, I still haven’t seen, as you note, a real definition of “information” out of them.

  • 2010/02/12 at 7:15 pm

    “Intelligent design” itself lasted from 1987 to 2005, though some might peg the ID label as achieving staleness when Stephen Meyer and Jonathan Wells failed to deliver on the Ohio State Board of Education’s request for what would be taught as ID, and instead offered a “compromise” whereby they still would teach the same arguments under the label of “critical analysis”. That one was derailed in Ohio in 2006 after the Kitzmiller case and revelations (revelatory to the Ohio SBOE; the rest of us knew what was up as soon as the Meyer and Wells talk became available) that the “critical analysis” stuff had the same content as ID and “creation science”. So ID’s reign as a label was longer than most, and you still see the DI trying to claim some validity and legitimacy for it.

  • 2010/02/12 at 8:57 pm

    Virtually all of those “publications” mentioned by Judge Jones came from one single paper …

    Eh what? I don’t have time to re-read the Kitzmiller decision, but it sounds like Mrs. Luskin’s little boy is attempting a concrete accusation here. The admission that Jones was purportedly citing a “review article” implies that there were in fact multiple distinct papers summarized by Long et al, yet this would lead many readers to conclude Jones somehow stretched a single item.

    Aside from DI hypocrisy, what’s the actual story here?

    … Minnich agreed that the multi-part system developed naturally, but dismissed it as an “adaptive response” rather than being evolution per se.

    Does anyone, besides creationists, contend that evolution by natural selection is anything but multi-generational “adaptive responses”?

  • 2010/02/12 at 9:33 pm

    Hello Casey Luskin. 2010 calling! It’s been FIVE YEARS since Kitzmiller and you’re still whining about a decision that still stands. Sure, it doesn’t apply to Guam, but what has “intelligent design” done in the meanwhile besides lick its wounds and whine?

    Seriously, Luskin, you’re going to publish an 8-part gripe about Kitzmiller after writing a short story about it (Traipsing blah blah)?

    You hope to accomplish what? Are you paid by the word?

    The facts are that prior to and after Kitzmiller in 2006 the “intelligent design” community, and I use the term “community” loosely, has come up with exactly nothing to counter the devastating testimony delivered by Minnich and Behe. Your own guys, Casey, sunk your case.

    I know Casey Luskin would like to rewrite history but, boo hoo, that’s just not possible. Sorry, Casey.

  • 2010/02/12 at 10:01 pm

    The shortest and most accurate description is: “another smokescreen from the Dishonesty Institute.”

  • 2010/02/13 at 12:13 pm

    Well, I have to admit that cdesign proponentsists are experts on “information”. After all, they make up “information” all the time.

  • 2010/02/13 at 12:51 pm

    ‘ The shortest and most accurate description is: “another smokescreen from the Dishonesty Institute.” ‘
    How about “Damn, re-runs again?”

  • 2010/02/13 at 2:19 pm

    Wes = Falcon/Kestrel/Hawk hungry in the morning
    Casey = Mouse

    I like this Dishonesty Institute’s assumption about “Origin of Life” that is a binary switch that flips the state in an instant rather than a continuum. By that the DI spinners can conveniently avoid dealing with the messy business that science always is, the innumerable contingencies, the vast time scales involved, and the many possible routes. As always first reduce your topic to bullet points and then reduce them to points scribbled on your palm, and then rail against people calling them clowns and worse.

    In the meanwhile real biologists do science because they love it, even risking their lives for it. Writing on 9/4/6 Wes paid a tribute to scientists here…

    Six years ago, two marine mammal researchers conducting field research in the Arctic, Stuart Innes and Malcolm Ramsey, died when their helicopter crashed. Outside of the marine mammal research community, relatively few people took note of the loss. It seems to me that we should pay a bit less attention to notoriety and a bit more to the pervasive daily tragedies around us. Our sympathy should extend not just to Terri Irwin [wife of the late Steve “Crocodile Hunter” Irwin] now, but we should pay especial attention to those suffering around us who don’t have the safety net of fan clubs and solicitous production companies. Those are the people to whom each of us can make the biggest difference.

  • 2010/02/13 at 2:50 pm

    If DI had an objection to Miller’s testimony, why didn’t they provide a defense witness to bring it up in court, where it could be cross-examined for validity, instead of whining about it unopposed four years after the fact on their own web site?

  • 2010/02/13 at 2:57 pm

    “As origin of life theorist Bernd-Olaf Kuppers stated in his book Information and the Origin of Life, “The problem of the origin of life is clearly basically equivalent to the problem of the origin of biological information.”

    How many atoms, single or combined, would it take to constitute so-called biological information? Can you have too many, too few, or must it be just the right number? What if you add/subtract atoms? What does that do to the so-called biological information that was defined by the initial set of atoms?

    This also gives Casey Luskin a golden opportunity to play like a legal wizz kid since he got a law degree (but I don’t think he’s licensed to practice law anywhere).

  • 2010/02/13 at 3:53 pm

    Luskin’s obsessive rantings about Judge Jones and Dover are starting to resemble the worst sorts of fan fiction, where the author inserts himself into the story. Casey seems to have a fantasy of appearing before the judge as both legal counsel and expert witness for the defense. After Casey thoroughly dismantles the plaintiff’s case, Jones has no choice but to acknowledge and reference Luskin’s legal and scientific brilliance in his decision. Maybe Casey should find another school district and offer his services to them.

  • 2010/02/13 at 4:33 pm

    My respect for Luskin would have gone up a lot if he had named his series after anything Carroll had written. Alas, that is only your mocking wit.

    First question for Casey: Didn’t anyone tell you that your organization ran away after getting Dover’s creationists into this mess?

    Second question: Why has it taken over four years to respond?

    Third, hardly worth asking: Why are you so lame?

  • 2010/02/13 at 4:54 pm

    Casey is a bum lawyer who has taken on the defence for some rich kid who has all but admitted that he “murdered the victim” and knows the rap will eventually stick. He has no alibi, the DNA samples match, the kid had motive, yada yada, …

    But he’s determined to use every trick of the trade to make the jury think otherwise.

    Its sad really. Particularly when most folk who read his crap will actually fall for it.

  • 2010/02/13 at 7:10 pm

    Three out of five DI fellows tagged by the Thomas More Law Center (TMLC) as defense expert witnesses were withdrawn after the final date for declaring expert witnesses. All five apparently were asked by Bruce Chapman, DI bigwig, to drop out of the case, but Michael Behe and Scott Minnich stayed on.

    The DI did attempt to slip in a rebuttal report previously submitted by a withdrawn expert as part of an amicus curiae brief. Judge Jones noticed that, among other shortcomings of their legal approach. I guess the DI feels that they have to try to return the favor.

  • 2010/02/13 at 8:33 pm

    Austringer: When an antievolutionist says “information”, 99 times out of 100 what they mean is “meaning”

    Thanks Wes, I didn’t know that. Perhaps if they give an operational definition, we’ll be able to calculate the added information content of the c and ist in cdesign proponentists :)

    Pierce: Virtually all of those “publications” mentioned by Judge Jones came from one single paper …

    Eh what? I don’t have time to re-read the Kitzmiller decision, but it sounds like Mrs. Luskin’s little boy is attempting a concrete accusation here.

    Even if true, I wouldn’t read much into it. Don’t legal decisions typically limit themselves to the evidence submitted by the parties? If Casey’s complaint is that Jones didn’t cite non-submitted articles, then IMO he (Casey) is making a very very stupid legal argument which confuses the role of the judge with that of the lawyers.

  • 2010/02/14 at 1:21 am

    I am not familiar with the US really system but doesn’t it require to finally accept decisions after the last opportunity to apeal has past even if those decisions may not be in favor of ones own opinions?

  • 2010/02/14 at 9:54 am

    The US system holds judges to mostly honor precedent. Out-of-court commentary, such as that engaged in by Luskin and other DI fellows and fellow travelers is pretty much unconstrained. They apparently would love for other communities to share in the joy that was Dover, Pennsylvania’s embrace of an “intelligent design” creationism policy.

    That last was sarcasm, by the way. I realize that wordplay in English is sometimes misread.

  • 2010/02/14 at 3:36 pm

    I think it’s funny that Luskin mentions Explore Evolution. Am I right in thinking that is the book that’s nothing but a long string of incorrect attacks on evolutionary theory?

    Are they still trying to get that book in schools?

  • 2010/02/14 at 5:45 pm

    Inspired by a post in Pandasthumb:

    If facts are on your side, bang on the facts. If law is on your side, band on the law. If neither is on your side, bang on the table. If there is no table, bang on the internet!

    The aim of all this exercise is show their paymaster that old fundie millionaire, Abrahamson or whoever that guy is, who funds the Dishonest Institute that these guys are working hard and producing voluminous “research”. These guys would not be above renting a botnet for an hour or two and get “hits” on their “publication”. Full traffic report from their ISP would show that everybody in China and his brother are avidly reading these research papers, hanging on every word with bated breath. That rich old guy could
    not tell the difference between a headline from The Onion and the one from New York Times.

    Recently the Supreme Court ruled that money is speech, restricting expenditure is restriction on speech. Well, millions of dollars buys tons and tons of speech, like this series.

    Once their funding for the next year is secure they will go back to making animated video of Judge Jones doll making fart noises.

  • 2010/02/14 at 6:46 pm

    Doc Bill (#6) asked of Casey: “Are you paid by the word?”

    Oddly enough, he is. As an apologist and spokes-shill for the Dishonesty Institute, he’s just doing his job, like any good German.

  • 2010/02/15 at 9:14 am

    Once their funding for the next year is secure they will go back to making animated video of Judge Jones doll making fart noises.

    Actually, they’ll seek even more even funding and make an IMax 3-D film on the same topic.

  • 2010/02/16 at 12:01 am

    Wesley, You are far more qualified than I am for this task, for which I am grateful.

    Excellent start, only 7 more to go.

  • 2010/02/19 at 7:50 am

    I have observed that a lot of creationists are what I call “verbal thinkers” – they cannot manipulate concepts in their brains (like “visual thinkers” can) – only words. Therefore, things like papers that don’t contain specific phrases, like “new genetic information” cannot possibly have anything to *do* with new genetic information. It’s a very rigid ontological way of thinking (if “thinking” is the right descriptor).

    You will never convince such a person by arguing with them – it is a specific defect. They really *are* retarded.

    But try it out. Look at some cdesign proponentsist screed, and imagine that words are *things*, indivisible atoms of thought, little discrete lego bricks that cannot be changed or substituted, and you will gradually see how their strange logic operates. It is as far removed from real thinking as it is possible to get, and I would imagine it is more common than many people realise.

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