Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Engineer and the Chalk

In Charles M. Vest's speech at MIT in 1999 attributes the parable of The Engineer and the Chalk (or The Handyman's Invoice) to electrical engineering expert Charles P. Steinmetz:
I want to tell you a story about an incident in the career of Charles Proteus Steinmetz, the great electrical engineer.
In the early years of this century, Steinmetz was brought to General Electric's facilities in Schenectady, New York. GE had encountered a performance problem with one of their huge electrical generators and had been absolutely unable to correct it. Steinmetz, a genius in his understanding of electromagnetic phenomena, was brought in as a consultant -- not a very common occurrence in those days, as it would be now.
Steinmetz also found the problem difficult to diagnose, but for some days he closeted himself with the generator, its engineering drawings, paper and pencil. At the end of this period, he emerged, confident that he knew how to correct the problem.
After he departed, GE's engineers found a large "X" marked with chalk on the side of the generator casing. There also was a note instructing them to cut the casing open at that location and remove so many turns of wire from the stator. The generator would then function properly.
And indeed it did.
Steinmetz was asked what his fee would be. Having no idea in the world what was appropriate, he replied with the absolutely unheard of answer that his fee was $1000.
Stunned, the GE bureaucracy then required him to submit a formally itemized invoice.
They soon received it. It included two items:
1. Marking chalk "X" on side of generator: $1.
2. Knowing where to mark chalk "X": $999.
Thus Steinmetz left his mark in more ways than one in early 20th century technology and business. You will do the same in the early 21st century.
Because you too will know where to put the "X."
But Steinmetz lived in the age of iron machines. Your careers will play out in the age of knowledge and information.
Fifteen years ago, shortly before his untimely death, the author Italo Calivino wrote Six Memos for the Next Millennium. In his memo entitled "Lightness," he put it simply:
"I look to science to nourish my visions in which all heaviness disappears. Today, every branch of science seems intent on demonstrating that the world is supported by the most minute entities...
The iron machines still exist, but they obey the orders of weightless bits."
The iron machines obey the bits.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

PZ Myers: The Biology Does Work

Evolution 2.0
Perry Marshall is raising some eyebrows and saying some interesting things about his Evolution 2.0.   I mostly like what he has to say, although I don't think he is giving proper credit to what Intelligent Design is or where some of his arguments come from.  He presents 'Evolution 2.0' as a kind of bridge between evolutionary thinking and design intuitions (what started as 'Mere Creation') and this is essentially what Intelligent Design already is.  Marshall does seem to bring a lot of the collective arguments of Bill Dembski, Steve Meyer, and Mike Behe framed succinctly within the past 30 years of genetic discoveries.

However, the confusion is in no small part because of the willful conflation of ID with creationism by ID's critics.  'ID Creationism' is a worthless term that is nothing more than a dishonest advertising campaign co-developed by Barbara Forrest and the NCSE.  Its effect has been to shut down discussion before it happens, and I believe that was precisely the intention.  This ploy was opportunistic ideological propaganda "in a cheap tuxedo."  If this lame political stunt now ends up causing people to pick up a book like Marshall's, so be it.  In the end inquiring minds will probably find that Evolution 2.0 is simply the more evolution-friendly version of ID.  

An interesting exchange between Perry Marshall and PZ Myers appears online and I was struck by various attempts by Myers to dismiss an engineering perspective of biology.  This one stood out in particular:
Over and over again what you do is you tell me ‘well from my perspective as an electrical engineer this doesn’t work, it can’t work’ and I’m telling you yeah but biology does work, so maybe your perspective is wrong.
What does Myers mean by "biology does work"?  In context, he seems to be saying that even though perspectives from engineering and computer science cast doubt on the very idea of a coding system arising through natural, random processes, it does indeed work so phooey on perspectives outside the fiefdom of biology.  Does he mean that the science of biology gives us useful technology (e.g. penicillin) and therefore we shouldn't question that life had a spontaneous origin?  Or is he dogmatically asserting that in modern biology it is a matter of unquestioned orthodoxy that natural processes are sufficient to produce whatever exists?  Fossils therefore abiogenesis?

Marshall challenges (with a 3 million dollar prize) the realm of biology to generate a coding system through an undirected chaotic process, and Myers states that this challenge is a sham because he should be able to present the already naturally occurring genetic code as evidence that this can happen and thus get the prize.  He doesn't need to question his assumption that abiogenesis happened because "biology does work"!  It is obvious that he, like so many others in evolutionary biology, are completely unaware of just how much intellectual laziness is represented here. 

He then goes on to ironically accuse Marshall of assuming what he intends to prove.  While Marshall is simply using the same abductive argument championed by Stephen Meyer, PZ Myers is unaware that museums full of fossils do not demonstrate that our DNA has a perfectly coherent natural explanation.  He fervently believes no one should actually have to do the work of demonstrating the random genesis of a code to get that 3 million dollar prize.  Darwin's "one long argument" showed the world that science had no need for God, and since there is no God we know that amazing codes like DNA have a perfectly natural explanation, even if we don't know what that could be (RNA, crystals, abiogenetic molecules du jour). 

I wish that Myers had promoted Tom Schneider's work as proof of a randomly generated code.  Then there might be some interesting back-and-forth about what a coding system is vs. a lock-and-key system.  While I suspect that there are flaws in the applicability of Schneider's model to actual site recognition, the bigger flaw is in its applicability to the sorts of biological "innovation" that Wagner and others have tried to characterize. 

Myers also criticized Marshall for what he considers an 'appeal to authority'.  Now you have to keep in mind that to Myers a 'creationist' isn't necessarily someone who believes that the world was created in 6 days, a 'creationist' is anyone that thinks that there are evidential reasons for thinking that life is the result of a conscious, creative act.  This is never more evident than in Myers' insinuation that Perry Marshall is a creationist.  As a rabid anticreationist, Myers will not only belittle 'creationists' for citing other 'creationists', but will get much more upset if they cite a figure that has some weight and is not already discredited as being skeptical of neo-Darwinism.  When 'creationists' do this, it must be characterized as an 'appeal to authority'. 

But if you read carefully, you'll see that Myers doesn't think it's wrong to appeal to authority; he faults Marshall for not appealing to the correct authorities. 

Myers and likeminded crusaders against anti-science tend to dismiss the engineering/software analogy.  Dawkins and others embrace the analogy because they don't see the problem.  Regardless of the definitions, orthodox evolutionary biology has the unique problem of trying to explain how engineering happens without an engineer, how a coding system develops without a coder, how purposeful machines arise in entropy-ridden purposelessness.  The Myers approach is to claim that the analogies from digital engineering don't apply to the digital wetware in our bodies.  It is too different they claim because it is (a) complicated, (b) replicated, (c) fault-tolerant, and (d) so darn wet.  All that math and computer science that is applicable to artificial digital systems is therefore not applicable to biological wetware (except when it seems to confirm an evolutionary point of view, of course).  Biological matter is too different in its complicated, self-reproducing electrochemical wetness to be beholden to information principles.
Engineering analogies must not be applicable because fossils and stuff show that the "biology does work", and after all, there are random errors that follow known distributions.  Therefore we can safely conclude that all the non-randomness is due to the accidents of genome arrangement.  After all, hundreds of thousands of biologists show up for work each day, and do science, and get their findings published.  There's no need to demonstrate how such elaborate order arises from disorder, because evolutionary biologists already know that it did.  All this "brute force molecular biology" really has no place weighing in on the matter.  Myers can join Jerry Coyne here in lamenting how molecular biology is not bolstering evolutionary theory--the weed of secular creationism seems to be sprouting up in molecular biology.  Seems like we will have to extend the Salem Hypothesis to include molecular biologists. 

Pay no attention to any ramifications of Craig Venter's work.  Why?  'Cause biology does work already!  It works!  We're not going to give up a hundred years' worth of conjectures and plausibility stories for some preposterous "brute force molecular biology" experiments!  The biology has worked just fine without them.