27 May 2010

Bread and circus: Signature in the Cell at Biola (Part II)

Here are some further observations on the Stephen Meyer book-signing appearance. Part I dealt with Meyer's talk and the other festivities. Here I'll describe the last third of the event, in which Art Hunt and I (the "powerful group of credentialed critics") spent a short time questioning Meyer.

1. Our time was short. The original proposal, some months back, simply mentioned a three-hour event which I pictured as Meyer facing a panel of experts for at least two hours. But the schedule for the evening allotted 70 minutes for "Q&A" from audience members, Twitterers, and the panel. My recollection is that we had a little less than an hour. Fortunately, there was only one question from online that I recall, and (I think) one or two from a single audience member (who was representing the Backyard Skeptics).

2. I started with an introduction in which I noted those things that I would not do, namely:

  • Claim that ID is "religion" or biblical creationism. Noting that I am myself a creationist, by virtue of being a Christian, I referred to the "creationist game" as a waste of time. The movement is overwhelmingly Christian, and almost exclusively creationist, but design ideas and proposals are not specifically or necessarily religious in nature. Moreover, Meyer's claims and ideas are not "religious" in the sense of reasoning from biblical or peculiarly theistic premises.
  • Quibble about whether ID is "science." For one thing, there really isn't a universal definition of what constitutes "science," and a quick Q&A at a publicity event is hardly the place to explore the subtleties of such definitions. But more importantly, I don't see why it matters. Call it "science," call it "philosophy," call it "art." What matters isn't what it's called, but whether it's true. (Or more precisely, whether it offers useful explanation.) Steve Meyer expressed hearty agreement with that point.
  • Bash the idea of design. Design is cool and interesting, but it's not the answer: it's the question. And it's pointless to try to refute the idea of design. It can't be done. (This point came up again later, and ID propagandists have characteristically misrepresented my simple assertion that design is irrefutable. Part III will be wholly devoted to that part of the conversation, and will be followed by an open letter to Steve Meyer in Part IV.)
3. Then Art and I began asking questions that were mostly designed to resemble the kinds of questions that a student would face when defending a thesis or dissertation. We took our questions from Meyer's claims in the book, and I focused on the scientific results of Meyer's ID position, which he lays out in later sections that I have yet to review here.

4. My first question dealt with one of Meyer's twelve "predictions of intelligent design." It's prediction number twelve, at the very end of the book, and it's based on the uninformative work of Doug Axe: "The functional sequences of amino acids within amino acid-sequence space should be extremely rare rather than common." The prediction is vacuous and unrelated to design (that's for another time), but my point was different. I projected an image of a phylogenetic tree, taken from Stephen Jay Gould's Wonderful Life. Then I pointed out that a standard evolutionary account of that tree, whether it's a tree of species or a tree of people or a tree of proteins, makes no prediction about the rarity (or commonness) of function or adaptation within the space that the tree inhabits. In the case of proteins, the branches of the tree are particular proteins, and the proteins are linked to each other by common ancestry. Whether each branch represents a fantastically rare structure that has a function, or just represents one choice among zillions of alternatives, is really not relevant to the question of how the protein's structure came to be. What is relevant is whether the protein's place in sequence space is linked through achievable steps to other points in sequence space. (The whole picture represents sequence space; the explored regions are indicated by the tree, which could be dwarfed by the space, or could nearly fill it, without affecting evolutionary explanation.) In other words, in order to challenge evolutionary explanation, one must demonstrate that proteins are isolated in sequence space, such that there is no stepwise trajectory that can lead from one protein to another. Isolation and rarity are not the same thing. But all Meyer claims (and all Doug Axe has tried to show) is that functional proteins are rare in sequence space.

Meyer's response, paraphrased, was: yes, good point. He claims to have argued elsewhere that functional proteins are indeed isolated in sequence space, but it is certain that he hasn't demonstrated this. He then re-described Axe's work, and re-made the simplistic points about whopping mutations done on crippled proteins. He admitted that it was a mistake to emphasize rarity and not isolation, saying, "I was getting a little tired when I was writing the predictions." In the subsequent discussion, he demonstrated a poor understanding of Axe's experiments, deferring to Axe to explain the implications of his work and expressing doubt and surprise at my claim that Axe made mutations ten at a time in his experiments. (He did. See Art Hunt for a detailed analysis of Axe's experiments and why they don't accomplish what Meyer claims they do.)

There was a certain amount of filibustering in the exchange, and at key points Meyer failed to understand what it would take to show that functional proteins are truly isolated in protein space.

5. My second question, and the interesting discussion that ensued, has been quotemined and sadly misrepresented by Discovery Institute snipers who don't deserve a response much less a link. It's the subject of Part III.

6. My final question was unfortunately a quickie at the end. I pointed to the fact that Meyer claims genomes are "information-dense," that they exhibit "efficient and well-organized packaging of information." (Quoting me there.) But in fact, genomes in the biosphere vary in size over at least five orders of magnitude (I didn't have time to project the figure above, taken from Ryan Gregory's Animal Genome Size Database site), and I noted that the amoeba wonderfully named Chaos chaos has a genome 200 times the size of the human genome. I asked him to make sense of this, and he did the following:
  • He punted to Richard Sternberg, speaking the next day.
  • He pointed to alternative splicing in the human genome, clearly missing the point, which is that the amoeba's genome must contain 200 times the information of the human genome. (For the record, alternative splicing occurs in amoebas too, so that doesn't even matter.)
  • He ignored the question about the amoeba. I think he understood it, but it's hard to tell. In any case, he was saved by the bell.
Like Art, I intended to ask more questions and there were important ones that didn't get asked. I can bring those up as I review the rest of the book. And there were some statements by Meyer that were grossly incorrect that couldn't be challenged without interrupting a mini-speech. I think those claims and concepts will come up in my further posts as well.

It wasn't a nasty debate (or a debate at all), and no one made a fool of himself. Meyer's case is very weak, and he did some things in his talk that I find strongly objectionable. But I found him respectful and reasonable in the Q&A, and would think a lot more highly of him if he didn't direct an obnoxious anti-science organization bent on Culture War and seeking to win at any cost.

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