Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Somehow this is flattering

(Yes, this is a bit of a delayed reaction, but I just found this today.)

Okay, well I haven't gotten an argument ad Hitlerum quite yet, but it seems I did get the next best thing: an argument ad Stalinum. And no, this isn't some random troll comparing me to Stalin, this is infamous neurosurgeon Michael Egnor. You might think he'd be smarter than to compare a grad student (then under-grad) with enough extra time on his hands to delete a sentence from Wikipedia to a mass-murdering tyrant, but then I'd have to remind you that this is Michael Egnor we're talking about.

Here's the story: For a while, Orac challenged Dr. Egnor to back up his assertion that the design inference was "of great value" to medicine. Eventually, Egnor responded with the following convoluted chain of logic:

The natural place to start showing examples of the inference to design in medical research is the seminal biological discovery of the 20th Century—Watson’s and Crick’s discovery of the structure of DNA.

Notice that Watson and Crick aren’t standing next to a pair of dice. To untangle the structure of DNA, they inferred design, not chance. They reversed-engineered DNA. They collected physical data about the structure of DNA (X-ray diffraction studies, Chargaff’s rules, the physical chemistry of nucleotides, etc), and then they designed a model of the molecule to understand its structure and function.

Let them speak for themselves, in their famous April 25, 1953 letter to Nature:

It is probably impossible to build this structure with a ribose sugar in place of the deoxyribose, as the extra oxygen atom would make too close a van der Waals contact.

Full details of the structure, including the conditions assumed in building it, together with a set of coordinates for the atoms….

Furthermore, the design specifications revealed an elegantly simple method by which the genetic material could be copied:

It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.

What exactly is reverse engineering? From Wikipedia:

Reverse engineering... is the process of discovering the technological principles of a device or object or system through analysis of its structure, function and operation…Reverse engineering is essentially science, using the scientific method. Sciences such as biology and physics can be seen as reverse engineering of biological 'machines' and the physical world respectively. (Emphasis mine)

Watson’s and Crick’s work of course had nothing to do with Darwinism (except perhaps their laboratory politics, which is another matter).

This is not to say that Watson and Crick believed that DNA was designed by God. They were both atheists. Even molecular biologists who are avowed atheists use the design inference in their work.

Much of modern biological research, and most research in molecular biology, is reverse engineering. Some scientists infer design explicitly. Some use the design inference implicitly, even if they disagree with its philosophical implications. We can’t do modern biology, at least at the molecular level, without using reverse engineering, which is the inference to design.

Now, let's look at one little point: Did Watson and Crick ever use the term "Reverse Engineering" to describe what they were doing? Nope. Egnor came up with that application of the term himself, based on what he read about it in Wikipedia, that science such as biology could be described as "reverse engineering of biological 'machines.'" Then, from the use of "machines," he takes his own impression that all machines are designed, and assumes the Watson and Crick must have also been working with the assumption that they were reverse engineering designed machines. Of course, he apparently didn't notice the scare quotes around "machines" which indicated that it wasn't to be taken literally, so inferring that it meant designed machines is a stretch.

Ask yourself this question: Did he even need to bring up Watson and Crick here? Try substituting in any other biological advance and apply the same logic, such as figuring out the structure of the cell. It works just as well/poorly, doesn't it? The reason for this is that his entire argument hinges on what that one paragraph in Wikipedia says and his interpretation of the word "machine" used therein. If he wanted to make the argument that biology was reverse engineering of designed machines, that would be one thing, but the problem was that he only used Wikipedia as a source for this.

Now, while I love Wikipedia and use it all the time, I'll be the first to admit it's not perfect. In the end, it can be no better that the best of what's contributed to it. Often, the best of the contributions don't end up staying and you get something sub-par. What we had in the reverse-engineering article was the opinion of one editor that natural sciences were like reverse engineering. Now, this wasn't completely out of line, but the problem is that almost no scientist actually thinks of it that way. The editor, to his/her credit, did put in scare quotes around "machines" to imply that it wasn't to be taken literally, but it still served to foster misinterpretations.

So, seeing this, I looked around a bit. Orac was definitely of the opinion that it wasn't really a good analogy between science and reverse engineering. I looked around the internet, and I didn't see any reliable, verifiable sources making this analogy. Given that it also lead to misinterpretations, by the standards of Wikipedia, the sentence really shouldn't be in there. Thus, I deleted it.

But I'll admit, cleaning up Wikipedia wasn't my primary goal. What I wanted to do was make it clear to Egnor and all who read it that his point hinged entirely on a single paragraph in Wikipedia, and Wikipedia wasn't a perfectly reliable source. A single paragraph in a trusted source (like, Watson and Crick's own statements) would have been fine for his argument, but he's using his own interpretation of the words of some random Wikipedia editor to infer about a completely different subject. Just as bad information can be put into Wikipedia, bad information can be taken out of it. And when it is taken out, all of a sudden he has zero argument at all. This wouldn't have been a problem if he'd used an actual source on the actual subject, such as Watson and Crick saying they used the design inference, but he instead had to play word games with an analogy made up by a Wikipedia editor.

Frustrated that his entire argument could be taken down so easily, Egnor went into a tirade where he compared my correcting of Wikipedia to Stalin's offing of Trotsky (yes, seriously):

In the Soviet Union, censors would routinely make out-of-favor party leaders disappear from photographs. In this photograph, Trotsky was made "photographic history" not too long before he was made "history" in a more tangible sense.

Darwinists, who are scientific, rather than political, materialists, have an affinity for airbrushing as well. When sneering, name-calling, and obfuscation don’t make the evidence go away, Darwinists just wipe it away. A recent example of Darwinian airbrushing is worth noting.

I recently noted that the discovery of the structure and function of DNA was a good example of reverse engineering in biology and that the discovery of DNA had nothing to do with Darwin’s theory. Reverse engineering in biology is an inference to design, even if the inference is implicit and not explicit, and even if the scientist using the reverse engineering methodology doesn’t agree with the philosophical implications of the design inference. Much of modern molecular biology is the reverse engineering of biological molecules.

To illustrate my point, I linked to the "Reverse Engineering" entry in Wikipedia, which had a nice succinct definition:

Reverse engineering... is the process of discovering the technological principles of a device or object or system through analysis of its structure, function and operation…Reverse engineering is essentially science, using the scientific method. Sciences such as biology and physics can be seen as reverse engineering of biological 'machines' and the physical world respectively. (emphasis mine)

My post was published on Evolution News and Views on April 3rd.

On April 4th, the Wikipedia reference to biological reverse engineering was airbrushed out. It was changed to:

Reverse engineering … is the process of discovering the technological principles of a device or object or system through analysis of its structure, function and operation. It often involves taking something (e.g. a mechanical device, an electronic component, a software program) apart and analyzing its workings in detail, usually to try to make a new device or program that does the same thing without copying anything from the original. The verb form is to reverse engineer.

This was airbrushed:

Reverse engineering is essentially science, using the scientific method. Sciences such as biology and physics can be seen as reverse engineering of biological 'machines' and the physical world respectively.

The biological reverse engineering analogy was part of the original definition, and had been present until the day that I linked to it in my post. Someone (perhaps a Darwinist?) went to work with an eraser.

(For those reading his entire article, DrLeebot (no capital B) was the name I went by back then. I recently had it changed for unrelated reasons.)

You know what he could have done to save his argument? He could have linked to another source that makes this same analogy to show how it wasn't just one Wikipedia editor who made it up. But he didn't.

Aside from that, it seems Egnor doesn't quite know how Wikipedia works. I can't really blame him for that; not many people spend significant time behind the scenes there. So, for his benefit and yours, here's a little summary of the key points:

1. What Wikipedia says is not evidence of anything (other than trivially evidence of what Wikipedia says). Wikipedia saying biology is reverse engineering is not evidence that biology is reverse engineering; it's the opinion of (at least) one editor that it is.

2. Information isn't deleted by editing it out. Anyone who knows enough can access the page as it appeared when Egnor read it and confirm that that sentence was indeed there. Of course, I didn't expect many people to see it, which is what I was hoping for: That they would see it wasn't there and realize how much Egnor's argument hinged on it.

3. Wikipedia is ruled by consensus. If a change is unpopular, it gets reverted. If more people want the article to stay one way, they can keep editing it that way to show this consensus, and the lone dissenter can't stop them. (Editors are limited to three reverts a day.) Since I made that change, not one person has even tried to revert it, and it's stayed that way to today.

4. You can change it yourself. This one is right in the summary to Wikipedia: "the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit." If you think that sentence should stay in, then revert it back in. If others think it should go, then we go through a series of talking about it on the discussion page, asking others for their opinions, and seeing where consensus lies.

Dr. Egnor, using one paragraph from Wikipedia and claiming it as evidence that biology is reverse engineering and that reverse engineering always uses the design inference was just pathetic. Removing that paragraph served to show how weak your argument was. Rather than give better support for you argument, your argument ad Stalinum just makes you look more pathetic.


Bronze Dog said...

Once again, someone reminds me of that painful IDiocy.

What's next? Is Egnor going to quote Urban Dictionary as evidence?

Bob said...

You little trouble maker...

Bob said...

Wait a minute. I was just thinking (which is so much more fun than work):

"Looking a little further, is [sic] seems that DrLeeBot has an agenda. He has repeatedly modified Wikipedia articles on "pseudoscience" and modified articles on President Bush in ways that that [sic] make them more critical of the President."

Oh no! DrLeeBot has an agenda. Today Wikipedia, tomorrow the world! But seriously, does Egnor mean to defend psudoscience with those scare quotes?

Oh, and "troublemaker" is all one word. Sorry.

Infophile said...

I particularly love how he went in and put a "[sic]" by use of "analog" (which I believe is actually an allowable, if uncommon use of the word), and then provided us with a shitload of grammatical mistakes himself. If you're going to be anal about someone else's (supposed) mistakes, it's not a bad idea to watch for your own.

And then there's his whole bringing up modifying articles on Bush. What does this have to do with ID, I wonder? Could it be that, maybe, ID is political and Bush is a big part of it? Nah...

TheBrummell said...

Kongratulations, Komrade!

What's Egnor up to these days, is he still ranting about angels on pin-heads, or whatever?

Infophile said...

Egnor's still posting on Evolution Views and News, though his posts have gotten a lot more menial lately (No more big face-offs with Orac or MarkCC).

Eamon Knight said...

I did a little paleontology on the Wikipedia article, back when Egnor was crying Stalin. Summary: the bit you "airbrushed" had only been present for six months, and originated with an anonymous editor (those IP addresses wouldn't be in Seattle, would they? ;-)

Bronze Dog said...

Somehow, I wouldn't be surprised.

Eamon Knight said...

Oh dear. Maybe I'm being paranoid here, but I see from sitemeter that at ~4:30pm today, someone in Seattle came here from Respectful Insolence, then clicked out to my linked article.

Yeah, OK: most people in Seattle are not members of the Disco Institute ;-).

Adam said...

Drat it! So you're the one who beat me to editing out that awful sentence! Dammit!


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